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Seven human rights violators buying Canadian military goods

Saudi Arabia may have received the biggest arms contract Canada has ever signed, but it’s not the only country with human rights concerns that Canada is doing business with.

By: /
18 August, 2016
Colombian soldiers stand at an army base in Buenavista Guajira province. Colombia will use 32 new Canadian-built armored vehicles along its border with Venezuela to combat illegal armed groups and protect oil pipelines and other infrastructure, the Defense Ministry said. January 20, 2015. REUTERS/Javier Casella
By: Stefan Labbé

Freelance journalist

Canada’s military exports have come under increasing scrutiny over the past year, with criticism of the Canadian government’s rewording of human rights checks and, more recently, questions over deliveries to South Sudan and Libya.

As The Globe and Mail reported late last month, the Trudeau government recently released two years of data outlining the export of Canadian military goods to foreign buyers and, in a series of edits, quietly thinned its commitment to avoid deals overshadowed by shady human rights records.

New wording states Global Affairs Canada “may include” a previously required step of “wide-ranging consultations” meant to address human rights, international security and defence on any given deal.

“The devil is in the details,” said Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a non-government organization that promotes disarmament and peace-building. “Every word matters in these things.”

The report follows the controversial $15 billion sale of over 900 light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia — a country with an abysmal human rights record aggravated by evidence suggesting it has used LAVs to not only quash dissent at home but in neighbouring Bahrain and Yemen as well.

More recently, the Streit Group, a Canadian company based in Innisfil, Ont., has been criticized in two separate United Nations reports for sending hundreds of armoured patrol vehicles into South Sudan and Libya, where the vehicles were used by the South Sudanese military and Libyan militias.

The “diversion” of these vehicles to illicit markets would be illegal under the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) Canada plans to accede to in 2017. The Canadian government has asked the RCMP to look into the Libya case, and hinted it will introduce legislation to make sure “companies play a responsible role.”

But all this begs the question: if Saudi Arabia, South Sudan and Libya all passed the litmus test for receiving Canadian arms and vehicles, what other countries with dubious human rights records receive Canadian military goods and technology?

Here are seven countries — in addition to those currently under scrutiny — to keep an eye on:

1. Nigeria

In 2011, Nigerian security forces began launching attacks against Boko Haram, the terrorist organization based in the northeast of the country. But in their fight against the group, Nigerian security forces have been wracked with allegations of abuse. In two cases, the evidence presented before the International Criminal Court implicated Nigeria’s Joint Military and Police Taskforce in “physical abuse, secret detentions, extortion, burning of houses, stealing money during raids, and extrajudicial killings of suspects.”

Despite these claims — as well as the deaths of thousands of civilians and the internal displacement of over two million people by the end of 2016 — the Nigerian authorities and courts continue to promote a culture of violence and impunity by rarely holding anyone accountable.

In March 2015, a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) revealed Canada to be the largest supplier of weapons to Nigeria and Cameroon. Although it is not clear if all the weapons came from private companies, two companies, Streit Group and INKAS, sold Spartan and other armoured vehicles to help Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram.

Many of these vehicles were manufactured by Streit Group at their assembly plant in the United Arab Emirates, something Jaramillo said may be a sign of things to come. Referring to the Trudeau government’s commitment to sign the ATT, he explained: “As international regulations like the ATT come into force, there’s a good chance we will see more Canadian companies moving their manufacturing overseas.”

2. Colombia

Despite a tentative peace deal in place, the conflict in Colombia represents the world’s longest running civil war, and pits left-wing guerrilla groups against right-wing paramilitaries and the Colombian government. Since 1985, over 6.8 million Colombians have been driven from their homes. This is the largest number of internally displaced people in the world after Syria.

While many have welcomed the June ceasefire between The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government, some fear that opposition-backed paramilitary groups or break-away guerrilla elements could reignite violence in an effort to derail the peace process.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in 2015 that human rights workers, union leaders, journalists and Indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders still suffer from violence perpetrated by all sides. A 2003-2004 demobilization program failed to disperse right-wing paramilitary groups, many of which either never disbanded or simply regrouped to form new organizations.

Between 2002 and 2008 the Colombian military routinely executed civilians across the countryside. Rights groups blame ranking military officers who sought a “positive” result in the conflict against guerrilla groups. This led soldiers to kidnap, murder and plant weapons on thousands of civilians.

From the air, Montreal-built Pratt & Whitney engines powered dozens of Super Tucano light attack aircraft — one of the foremost counterinsurgency aircraft in the world —  into the fight against the leftist guerrillas.

In 2012, Canada quietly eased restrictions on the sale of automatic assault weapons with high magazine capacities to Colombia by adding the country to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List (AFCCL). In a hollowed consultation process leading up to the deal, Project Ploughshares and Amnesty International Canada opposed the addition of Colombia, underscoring the “substantial risks that imported automatic firearms will be used in human rights violations or diverted to illegal use.”

Only days after the AFCCL decision, Canada announced the sale of 24 LAVs to Colombia worth $65 million. However, documents obtained from SIPRI up the count to 32 Piranha-3 LAVs worth $84 million. Then, in 2014, the Canadian company INKAS delivered a dozen Huron armoured personnel carriers to the Colombian police for an undisclosed amount.

“This kind of vehicle is one that is very adaptable — one [for which] the same kind of risks that we are worried about in Saudi Arabia potentially could exist in Latin America, should there be changes of government,” said Kenneth Epps, a Project Ploughshares policy advisor on the international arms trade.

3. Mexico

On the morning of May 22, 2015, Mexican federal police raided El Sol ranch in the state of Michoacán, quickly surrounding the 112-hectare property before a Blackhawk helicopter arrived.

“I was watching everything,” says a witness from the nearby village of Puerta de Vargas. “It was just one [helicopter], but the hail of bullets it kicked out was powerful, so loud — this helicopter was the one that killed everyone.”

After three hours, 42 civilians and one police officer lay dead, a fact then head of the National Security Commission Monte Alejandro Rubido attributed to the “superior training” of the police. But according to Human Rights Watch, “multiple witnesses reported that they saw police officers shoot dead unarmed civilians after the confrontation was over.”

This is just one instance in a string of human rights violations reported across Mexico since Felipe Calderón launched Mexico’s “war on drugs” in 2007. Authorities have had little success in prosecuting either the police or the army. Both organization are accused of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and the torture of thousands of Mexican civilians. Over the same period, a growing arsenal of U.S.-built weapons has flowed into Mexico, including the Blackhawk helicopter that fired on El Sol ranch last year.

In March 2016, Textron’s subsidiary Bell Helicopter delivered the final Bell 407GXP helicopter from its factory in Montreal to the Mexican air force in a deal worth $37.5 million. The helicopters now operate with a parapublic mandate, which, in addition to search and rescue operations and emergency medical services, puts them at the service of law enforcement. According to a 2014 Jane’s article, these helicopters will “operate in pairs, with one helicopter performing aerial spraying of marijuana or poppy plantations while covered by an armed escort.”

Like the Blackhawk, the Bell 407GXP is billed as a multi-mission capable helicopter. That means while both can provide airlift capabilities for soldiers and medical emergencies, each can also be armed as a light attack helicopter.

4. Peru

On April 12, 2013, the Peruvian newspaper Hildebrandt en sus trece revealed that the national police and army had signed secret agreements with 13 mining companies.

The agreements detail how mining companies contract the police to regularly patrol, identify threats and then neutralize them — all with massive logistic and financial support from the companies. This financial incentive pushes police to confront protests with violence, according to the National Coordinator of Human Rights (CNDDHH). Between 2011 and 2014, 34 civilians were killed in protests in Peru, often after police fired live ammunition into crowds.

For its part, the Peruvian army signed an agreement to support the company Minera Afrodita with security and logistics, something lawyer Juan Carlos Ruíz Molleda of the Legal Defence Institute found unconstitutional. The CNDDHH says this is not an isolated case, but a practice that extends across the country.

Less than a year after the government was revealed to be colluding with mining companies, Peru amended its criminal code so that members of the armed forces and police have immunity from prosecution. This amendment throws out previous immunity that only kicked in when police used lethal force in line with principles of necessity and proportionality.

On another front, a conflict has been brewing between the national government and the informal mining sector, an industry that is thought to support 30,000 Peruvians in one region alone. In order to combat this rise in illegal mining, the Peruvian marines have stepped up search and destroy missions to root out illegal mining camps in environmentally sensitive areas.

In January 2016, the government announced the construction of a permanent military base in Madre de Dios, a region known to have the highest prevalence of illegal mining in the country. But the CNDDHH is worried that deploying the armed forces within Peru on a regular basis has the potential to escalate the conflict and “carries the risk of violating human rights.”

Canada has ramped up its sale of military equipment to Peru in the last several years with the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) — a Crown corporation that acts as a broker between Canadian arms manufacturers and their overseas buyers — signing over $225 million in military export deals in 2014-15. In a 2013 secret briefing note provided to then Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Peru, Chile, Brazil and South Korea were added to the AFCCL “in response to reduced demand for Canadian-made weapons in traditional markets like the U.S. and Britain.” To date, the two largest contracts include a $103 million deal to provide mission-ready navy helicopters and a nearly $72 million contract to provide 32 light armoured personnel carriers to the Peruvian marines.

In addition, Pratt & Whitney Canada delivered 20 PT6 engines to the Peruvian air force to be used in 10 Korean KA-1 light attack aircraft and in 10 KT-1 trainer aircraft. Like the Super Tucano, these airplanes represent a global shift towards low-flying, heavily armed aircraft used against unconventional targets.

5. The Philippines

The Philippine armed forces have run counterinsurgency operations for decades, with much of the violence and displacement directed towards the predominantly Muslim population of Mindanao and amongst Indigenous communities. Beyond direct operations, the military aids, trains, controls and protects paramilitary groups to act as “force multipliers in its counterinsurgency campaign and as protectors of big business intruding into the lands of peasants and Indigenous peoples,” according to the Karapatan human rights organization.

While the killings appeared to decrease in 2014, Karapatan found that there is at least one government-perpetuated extrajudicial killing per week, especially against those who oppose mining interests — including activists, journalists, environmentalists and tribal leaders.

In 2013, Pratt & Whitney Canada began signing a series of contracts to build engines for 13 AW109 helicopters. The $24 million deal includes eight army helicopters designed to battle “insurgents,” according to records obtained from Project Ploughshares.

A year later the CCC brokered a $118 million deal between the Philippine military and Bell Helicopter Textron Canada for eight Bell 412 combat utility helicopters. These helicopters are extremely versatile, capable of providing close air support and assault support with door mounted machine guns, as well as air mobile capabilities for up to 15 soldiers, including the pilot.

6. Thailand

On April 10, 2010 — three days after the Thai military began its crackdown on protesters from the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (also known as UDD or “Red Shirts”) — a group of UDD supporters gathered on a bridge in central Bangkok. Video footage caught soldiers firing indiscriminately into a crowd, killing several civilians. Over the next five weeks, at least 98 people died and more than 2,000 were injured in the violence and protests that consumed the city.

Thailand’s anti-corruption commission has consistently dismissed charges against former senior officials alleged to have played major roles in the violence.

“Despite killings by soldiers of protesters, medics and even reporters in broad daylight in downtown Bangkok for all the world to see, Thailand’s institutions have closed ranks to protect the army and politicians from justice,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW.

In May 2014, Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha swept into power during the country’s twelfth military coup. Since then, opposition political activity and freedom of expression have been criminalized; hundreds of civilians have been arbitrarily arrested and held incommunicado; and if political dissidents ever make it to a courtroom, they are often tried in closed military courts.

In 2010 — the same year as the military crackdown — Canadian companies exported some of the very tools used to suppress protestors, including an undisclosed combination of chemical or biological toxic agents, riot control agents and radioactive materials, as well as small arms, high-calibre guns and projectiles, and ammunition.

More recently, the Thai army bought eight Italian-assembled AW139 helicopters for law enforcement and VIP passenger transportation. In a $16 million deal, Pratt & Whitney Canada was subcontracted to provide 16 turbo-shaft engines for the helicopters.

This deal illustrates an important loophole in Canadian military exports that echoes across several high-value deals. Aircraft engines built for export receive a civilian certification by Transport Canada. At that point, Global Affairs Canada classifies them as civilian goods that do not require an export permit, even if the end user is a foreign military.

7. Turkey

More than 60,000 people, including judges, soldiers, teachers and journalists, have been arrested or fired for their alleged role in the July 15 failed coup d’état that left more than 240 dead.

An important Western ally, Turkey acts as both a host to American aircraft in the U.S.’s bombing campaign against ISIS and as a buffer between Europe and the sea of humanity fleeing the war in Syria. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian measures have darkened Turkey’s once-promising bid to join the European Union and complicated its relationships with NATO allies opposed to the post-coup crackdown.

As a NATO ally, Turkey has long imported Canadian military goods and technology. But Turkey’s economy has grown, and it now produces a vast array of locally built weapons. In response, Canadian defence-related exports have shifted to fill a void in high-end defence technology.

In 2013, the Canadian company CAE Inc. exported digital flight training technology to Turkey for its new attack helicopter. That same year, Pratt & Whitney sold 15 turboprop engines for the Turkish Hurkus-B aircraft — an advanced trainer seen as a precursor to a light attack, counterinsurgency version.

Canadian companies have identified Turkey as a major potential buyer of imaging and surveillance equipment. These technologies — while not always technically military — are of growing concern in a country whose judiciary has lost substantial credibility due to political appointees, and where the Erdogan government increasingly stifles freedom of expression and political dissent.

In addition, as Canadian special forces train the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq in the fight against ISIS, Canadian-built military goods and technology could very well be used in a long-standing conflict across the region — one pitting Turkey, a traditional NATO ally, against the burgeoning hopes for an independent Kurdish state.

The trouble with doing business with allies

In the past, the Canadian defence industry’s biggest customers were also Canada’s biggest allies. But when the industry set itself up around niche products like aircraft engines and LAVs, it became dependent on exports, something Kenneth Epps says is a problem: “Once you have that dependency, if you can’t go to the traditional markets where you might be more comfortable with the human rights situation, it forces you to go into markets where those questions are much more immediate.”

Epps, who has been following Canadian military exports since the late 1980s, explains that as we have moved away from exporting military equipment to our allies, the Canadian defence industry has increasingly ignored concerns around human rights, conflict and general regional security.

“There are situations when military equipment, particularly Canadian military equipment, is justified…But too often the sole justification for the export of military equipment is economic,” said Epps, referring to lucrative contracts and the desire to guard against a loss of Canadian defence jobs.

“The Canadian public is having the wool pulled over its eyes.”

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