Canada bans drone tech exports to Turkey following media scrutiny

Months-long Ricochet investigation exposed details of intense lobbying effort by drone technology manufacturer and the Turkish government
Photo: Global Affairs Minister Marc Garneau. (International Transport Forum / Flickr)
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The federal government announced Monday that Canada is cancelling export permits allowing sophisticated drone technology to be sold to Turkey, following months of controversy about the use of this made-in-Ontario equipment in lethal drone strikes during the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

An earlier ban on export permits had been lifted following a phone call between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the culmination of months of intensive lobbying efforts.

Senior officials at Global Affairs Canada have been summoned to testify before the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday afternoon as part of its investigation into the matter. The MP who launched the committee’s investigation, Jack Harris, told Ricochet in an earlier interview that he was “very suspicious of the fulsomeness of the information” given to Parliament about these exports.

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The six-week conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh led to significant casualties and resulted in the defeat of the Armenian side.

This outcome was due in no small part to a devastating series of strikes from drones that were determined to be equipped with technology made by Ontario-based firm L3Harris Wescam. Turkey was an ally to Azerbaijan during the war, and some of the most effective drones used in the conflict were Bayraktar TB2 drones made by Baykar Defence, a Turkish company on the cutting edge of the country’s increasingly effective drone program.

‘Credible evidence’ Canadian drone tech used in war

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau spoke with Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, on Monday prior to the announcement that Canada had “found credible evidence that Canadian technology exported to Turkey was used in Nagorno-Karabakh” on Baykar drones. A government press release added that this use was not consistent with assurances given by Canada’s NATO partner related to the use of this technology.

These prior assurances came as part of an intense lobbying effort last year that included outreach by the Turkish government and arms companies — including well-connected Ottawa lobbyists hired on behalf of both Baykar and L3Harris Wescam. The end result was the creation of an exemption by the Trudeau government in April 2020 allowing for the export of L3Harris Wescam’s technology to resume, despite a previous government decision to suspend these exports over similar concerns.

Canada continues to allow the export of this very same Canadian drone technology to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite those countries’ longstanding involvement in the war in Yemen.

Ricochet has been investigating these behind-the-scenes efforts since July of last year — including as part of our broader September 2020 story “Unmasking Canada’s Role in the Drone Wars” — and has obtained a series of internal government documents via access-to-information requests that have helped shed light on how this exemption came about.

Last month Ricochet obtained records from the Privy Council Office showing that the Canadian government was in communication last year with a lobbyist for Baykar, Ken Mackay of Capstone Defence Insights, culminating in a Feb. 12 meeting in Ottawa with Philip Jennings, a senior official in the PCO who regularly attends cabinet meetings. This is the only known discussion between Baykar and the government of Canada around the time of the approval of the drone tech export exemption last year.

The documents show that the meeting two months prior to the exemption was directly related to L3Harris Wescam exports and that the Baykar lobbyist stated the matter was of “increasing urgency.” Both Global Affairs Canada and a member of the Canadian Armed Forces advising the PCO were involved in briefing Jennings prior to his meeting with the lobbyist. The government had previously stated that no such records existed, and no records from PCO or Global Affairs Canada about this meeting were included in those previously provided to the parliamentary committee in accordance with the motion.

Ricochet’s publication of these documents last month about the meeting between the PCO and Baykar Defence made news in Armenia, with a team of investigative journalists further reporting on the matter.

Liberals and lobbyists

According to the lobby registry, a few weeks after the February Baykar meeting at the PCO, Bruce Hartley, a close associate of former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien working as a lobbyist for L3Harris Wescam, communicated with a senior special assistant to the minister of foreign affairs.

Ricochet’s review of Elections Canada records found that Hartley has donated more than $15,000 to the Liberal Party of Canada and its riding associations since 2015 – including a donation to the riding association of MP François-Philippe Champagne, who was the foreign affairs minister at the time and who ultimately signed off on the export permits.

Global Affairs Canada has failed to respond to numerous access-to-information requests from Ricochet about this meeting with the Wescam lobbyist. This meeting also does not appear to have been disclosed as part of the documents released to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, and neither officials at Global Affairs Canada or the minister’s office have spoken publicly about this meeting to date.

Baykar had assured Canada it would not “re-export or transfer” the technology.

In the weeks following these lobbying efforts, both the foreign affairs minister and Prime Minister Trudeau also spoke to their counterparts on the phone. Government records released to Parliament confirm the Wescam drone export issue was discussed, ultimately resulting in export approval.

The Armenian government has claimed Bayraktar TB2 drone parts it recovered on the battlefield include Canadian Wescam technology manufactured in June 2020, following the exemption and approval of these export permits.

A report released Monday by Global Affairs Canada as part of its announcement noted that Baykar had assured Canada it would not “re-export or transfer” the technology.

The report also states that Turkish officials had provided written assurances that the Wescam tech would not be “diverted, re-exported or transferred to any third party for any reason.” The report concluded, however, that Baykar had no obligation to provide assurances as to how the Turkish government used the final product, adding that “Baykar cannot be held accountable for the actions of the Turkish Government in relation to Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, Libya or elsewhere.”

While the Trudeau government portrayed Monday’s decision as Canada taking proactive steps to ensure compliance with human rights and arms trade obligations, left unmentioned is that Canada continues to allow the export of this very same Canadian drone technology to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite those countries’ longstanding involvement in the war in Yemen.

There is no indication that the government intends to review the export of Canadian drone strike targeting technology to those countries at this time.

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