Canada has a war crimes problem

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Photo of demonstrators at the Wescam HQ on September 28, 2020. Image: contributed photo

Two new reports on Canadian weapons exports reveal that Canadian-based corporate entities (and, by extension, government agencies that support and encourage their exports) are complicit in the commission of war crimes in Yemen, Turkey, Libya, Syria and Iraq.

These findings build on previously raised concerns that the Canadian military was complicit in war crimes during the occupation of Afghanistan (including when current Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan operated there as a soldier). 

Earlier this month, the United Nations criticized Canada, among other nations, for continuing to export weapons to all parties that fuel the commission of war crimes in Yemen. 

"Yemen has been ravaged in ways that should shock the conscience of humanity," said Melissa Parke, a member of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen that produced the report, "Yemen: A Pandemic of Impunity in a Tortured Land." "Yemen has now experienced some six years of unremitting armed conflict, with no end in sight for the suffering of the millions of people caught in its grip."

Kamel Jendoubi, who chaired the UN group, added: "After years of documenting the terrible toll of this war, no one can say 'we did not know what was happening in Yemen.'"

Trudeau fuels Saudi weapons experts

Yet despite the detailed, years-long public record documenting such crimes, the Trudeau regime has never taken any meaningful steps to end its government's complicity. Indeed, during the April pandemic lockdown, the Trudeau government lifted its temporary suspension of weapons exports to the Saudi regime spearheading the war against Yemen, one imposed after Saudi agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Istanbul-based Saudi consulate.

Meanwhile, Saudi-bound killer armoured vehicles are still rolling off the London, Ontario assembly line of General Dynamic Land Systems as part of a $15-billion contract that met the federal government's definition of an "essential" workplace during the height of COVID-19's first wave. 

Since coming to power in 2015, the Trudeau government eagerly embraced the Harper-initiated weapons deal, with former global affairs minister Stéphane Dion infamously signing the final contract in defiance of domestic and international law prohibitions, as well as giving a lie to the so-called feminist government's own proclamations about respecting the rights of women and international "rule of law." 

Dion conceded he could not have mustered the intestinal fortitude to engage in such a criminal action without the assistance of then-minister of trade Chrystia Freeland. He added however that he was afraid of what the Saudis would say if Canada did the right thing by refusing to participate in war crimes. "If you cancelled a contract of this magnitude, it will resonate everywhere …. And Saudi Arabia will have to react. Don't think they will praise Canada," Dion said, as if criticism from one of the world's worst human-rights violators justified continued support for those violations.

In a similar statement that revealed Dion's intense need to undertake self-awareness training, he told the Globe and Mail, "I think it's fair to say we are more concerned about human rights than the Harper government. That's what I think as a Liberal. That is for you to assess [whether] it's the case."

Twisted justifications for criminality

Long after Dion left the global affairs bunker in Ottawa, the justifications for ongoing weapons exports to Saudi Arabia continue from a branch of the federal government that suffers from a major conflict of interest: on the one hand, it acts as a global pimp for the Canadian weapons industry, while on the other, it is empowered to determine whether or not its ravenous appetite for arms sales violates its treaty commitments.

This past spring, in an echo of the Yoo memos that twisted the global anti-torture legal regime into a justification for Bush administration torture, global affairs' report on Saudi weapons exports concluded that "there is no substantial risk that current Canadian exports of military goods and technology to KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] would be used by KSA to commit or facilitate serious violations of [International Humanitarian Law], including 'internal repression.'"

The report further found that there was no evidence to suggest Canada's war exports would "undermine peace and security, either nationally or locally." In fact, the report finds that Canada's $15 billion in military exports to Saudi Arabia "contribute to regional peace and security."

Global affairs, in a bizarre and racist statement, clearly wants its readers to understand that Canada is on some high moral plateau because Saudi Arabia "has not committed to the same standards with respect to exports or the use of certain weapons."

Yet in another example of the self-awareness deficit that appears to dominate global affairs thinking, the report declares that Saudi Arabia is not a member of the Arms Trade Treaty (which Canada is violating with its arms exports to Saudi Arabia), the mine ban treaty (which Canada violates by continuing to sell weapons to and participate in wars led by the U.S., which earlier this year committed to new production and deployment of land mines) and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (horrific weapons which Saudi Arabia has used against residential areas, and which the U.S. refuses to ban).

Despite these acknowledgements, Canada sees no problem trusting that the Saudis will not use Canadian-made weapons -- whose singular purpose is to undermine peace and security -- to actually undermine peace and security.

It's not just on the battlefield where Canadian-made weapons make their mark. Canada's weapons are equally useful in suppressing any form of dissent in Saudi Arabia.

Remarkably, the bureaucrats at global affairs concluded in their evaluation of military support to the Saudi dictatorship that, "it cannot be assumed that any use of military equipment to control protests is an illegitimate use, rather than a legitimate public security operation." (Given that Canada regularly uses military equipment and resources to suppress Indigenous land defenders here at home, such a conclusion is not surprising, though it might shock U.S. generals who earlier this year said they were opposed to Donald Trump using the military to repress the American people.)

In a section that would be right at home in George Orwell's 1984, the global affairs analysis also finds that Saudi Arabia is "a valued Canadian security partner" in the so-called war on terror, praising the terrorist Saudi regime because it is a founding member of the Global Counterterrorism Forum that Canada currently co-chairs with Morocco.

Wescam's drone tech implicated

Those on the receiving end of Canadian-exported weapons are not likely nodding in agreement that their lives have enjoyed greater peace and security. Indeed, a new report from Project Ploughshares on the commission of war crimes involving Canadian-made sensors and targeting equipment produced by Burlington, Ontario's Wescam concludes that:

"Canada's export of Wescam sensors to Turkey poses a substantial risk of facilitating human suffering, including violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Canadian officials are obligated by international and Canadian law to mitigate the risks of such transfers, including through the denial of export permits, when such risks are apparent from the outset -- which appears to be the case with Wescam exports to Turkey."

As with the Saudi killer vehicles contract, the news that Wescam is involved in producing technology used in repression and war crimes is nothing new.

Indeed, in the early 2000s, Homes not Bombs documented how Wescam (at that time owned by L3 Communications):

"supplies human rights violators (Colombia, Egypt, Algeria, China, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, U.S., and U.K), provides components used by the Hellfire-missile-armed US Air Force Predator, Cobra Attack Helicopter, & Vigilante chopper's Low Cost Precision Kill scheme; L-3 Wescam 'border control' products prevent refugees from finding safety; L-3 Wescam outfits police forces to repress demonstrations and ‘public disturbances’; Wescam parent L-3 Communications Canada is ranked #1 war manufacturer (Canadian Defence Review, 2006);  and Wescam Parent company L-3 Communications supplies 'interrogation' teams allegedly implicated in torture in Iraq."

Situated on a sideroad next to an elementary school in Burlington, the Wescam factory was the focus of years of protests by groups including Homes not Bombs, where dozens were arrested for seeking meetings with company officials to discuss their role in the war crimes of the day. These included the opening salvo of Bush administration use of armed drones to conduct extrajudicial assassinations in 2002, as well as ongoing complicity in the crimes committed by occupation forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other countries targeted by U.S. and allied forces.

But Wescam's complicity in crimes is not limited to some long-ago war on terror campaign. It is, as with any war manufacturer, an ongoing concern. As Ploughshares notes, the Turkish military supplied by the Burlington company "has committed serious breaches of international humanitarian law and other violations, particularly when conducting airstrikes," while Turkey has also exported its purchased Wescam technology to armed groups in Libya, "a blatant breach of the nearly decade-old UN arms embargo." These exports also violate the Canadian government's own Arms Trade Treaty obligations.

Ploughshares' research also revealed that Wescam maintains an authorized service centre for the Turkish weapons company Baykar. Turkey is the third-biggest recipient of Canadian weapons exports (valued at over $152 million). While Ottawa temporarily suspended weapons sales to Turkey in October 2019 after that country's latest invasion of Syria, Canada announced an extension of the embargo in spring 2020.

Turkish strongman Recep Erdogan was furious, and confronted Trudeau about it. Erdogan was especially peeved, since at that time Trudeau had lifted a pause on weapons exports to war crimes being produced by the Saudi regime in Yemen. According to one Turkish official, Trudeau "said they would take some steps to alleviate Turkish concerns regarding the exports; that they would review everything case by case."

Middle East Eye reports, "Turkey was giving utmost importance to the import of the optics and surveillance systems from the Canadian firm Wescam for its military drones." The Turkish regime also relies on Pratt & Whitney Canada for warplane engines.

Exemptions for war crimes

It did not take long for Global Affairs Canada to grant an exemption for Wescam to continue those weapons exports a month later.

Turkey was apparently worried that its capacity to wage drone warfare would be limited given battlefield losses in Syria and Libya. That resumption of weapons sales came just as the group Genocide Watch openly questioned why Turkey was not before the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed during its multiple incursions into Syria.

They noted that:

"In areas under Turkey's control, civilians have been subjected to horrific crimes against humanity committed by Turkish forces and Turkish supported militias. Kurdish towns have been bombed and destroyed, some with white phosphorus, a war crime. Hundreds of civilians have been summarily executed. Kurdish and Yazidi women have been kidnapped and subjected to sexual slavery. Secret prisons hold hundreds of Kurds who are routinely tortured."

During those incursions, schools and hospitals were bombed, as were civilian convoys fleeing the violence, and nearly 180,000 Kurds were forcibly displaced in an act that even U.S. officials named as an act of "ethnic cleansing."

Similar genocidal attacks against Kurds have been launched by Turkey in northern Iraq, with Ploughshares pointing out, "In 2018, Turkey began the practice of targeted killings in Iraq, becoming only the second country in the region, after Israel, to undertake extraterritorial targeted killings."

When one senior Kurdish leader was assassinated by a Turkish drone in Iraq, footage of the attack was proudly shared on Wescam's own website, though it was erased after the Canadian window dressing embargo in spring 2020. Wescam's MX-GCS EO/IR imaging system has also reportedly been integrated into the Belgian-made Cockerill turret of the Turkish FNSS Kaplan armoured fighting vehicle.

Meanwhile in Libya, where battling forces have all committed war crimes, Turkey is exporting its own drone technology with Wescam targeting systems, in violation of a decade-old UN arms embargo. Ploughshares shared pictures of downed drones that had been built with Wescam targeting cameras.

Turkey also employs Wescam drone technology in ongoing domestic repression and murder by drone against Kurdish people, including reports in December 2019 that Turkish drones "participated in airstrikes against Kurdish organizations in at least 11 provinces in southeast Turkey."

The Intercept noted last year as well that Turkish drones (which, notably, rely on Wescam technology) are a "near constant presence in the skies in the country's southeast. Nearly every day, a Turkish drone, usually a TB2, either fires on a target or provides the location of a target that is subsequently bombed by an F-16 or attack helicopter."

Hundreds of people have been killed in these strikes.

In 2019, Amnesty International reported that Turkish operations demonstrate "an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives, launching unlawful deadly attacks in residential areas that have killed and injured civilians." Ploughshares concludes that "there is a clear and demonstrable substantial risk that the further export of Wescam sensors to Turkey could cause harm to civilians and facilitate breaches of IHL [International Humanitarian Law]."

What is our responsibility?

What do we do with the knowledge that taxpayer-supported corporations, with the cooperation of Global Affairs Canada and the Canadian Commercial Corporation, are involved in the commission and perpetuation of war crimes and crimes against humanity? After all, as The Nuremberg principles established at the end of the Second World War, citizens are responsible for acts committed in their name.

One set of post-Second World War war crimes trials concerned executives and board members of German armament maker Krupp, which armed the Nazis while using over 100,000 slave labourers.

Most were convicted and sentenced to modest prison terms, while Alfried Krupp, who was ordered to sell all of his possessions, was unrepentant, crying out in words that may well have been uttered by Stéphane Dion or Chrystia Freeland:

"The economy needed a steady or growing development. Because of the rivalries between the many political parties in Germany and the general disorder there was no opportunity for prosperity ... We thought that Hitler would give us such a healthy environment. Indeed he did do that ... We Krupps never cared much about [political] ideas. We only wanted a system that worked well and allowed us to work unhindered. Politics is not our business."

On International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2002, I was privileged to be among the very first people ever arrested for resisting drone warfare. We had gathered at Wescam's Burlington factory to conduct a citizen's weapons inspection as the drums of war with Iraq were heating up. While UN inspectors were at that moment enjoying unfettered (and often unannounced) access to a host of suspected Iraqi weapons production sites (none were found, to the surprise of no one), we were barely 20 feet onto the property before we were met by police who hauled us away and charged us with trespassing.

When we went to trial the following April (after the horrors of the Bush onslaught of "shock and awe"), we attempted to introduce evidence about the crimes Wescam contributed to up to that moment in history. We also sought to testify about the increasing dangers posed by drone warfare and the other technologies of surveillance, border control,] and domestic repression that padded the company’s bottom line.

These were all reasons why we had gone to Wescam. But neither the judge nor the Crown were interested.

"These people [military manufacturer Wescam] run a business," declared Burlington Crown Attorney Tom Davies in response. "I don't know what it is and I don't care what it is."  

When we argued that the court needed to hear about the context of our actions, Justice of the Peace Barry Quinn, in a very political statement, declared: "Politics are not being carried on in this court. This court is not going to be involved in whether there is a war in Iraq. This court will hear about the here and now only."

Needless to say, the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq by U.S., U.K. and Canadian forces was well established by that time, and was very much part of the "here and now."

Although we went back to Wescam on many occasions (as well as other military manufacturers, war shows, and government bodies enabling these crimes), each time we experienced the same attitude of the Crown prosecutor, who just did not want to know that the heart of his community hosts a manufacturing facility whose products are regularly employed to murder people halfway around the world.

The same excuses used by the Nazi manufacturers -- that they needed to do this blood-stained work for the economy -- echo with sickening consistency when uttered by Canadian politicians of all stripes and union representatives who ignore the posters on their walls about international solidarity with the workers on the receiving end of Canadian-made war machinery.

Just as the pandemic has exposed once more the structural inequality that besets this land, these new reports add one more piece to the argument that Canada's war economy needs to be dismantled and transformed into peaceful uses.

Indeed, as conservatives bemoan the Trudeau government's relatively modest investments in pandemic supports, few are willing to discuss the annual $31.7 billion outlay for war, the planned $19 billion in fighter bombers, and the $110 billion purchase of new and wholly unnecessary warships. None of this huge investment in killing has defended anyone against threats from climate change and COVID-19 or economic inequality.

If anything, the massive Canadian commitment to war has contributed to the hollowing out of social safety nets by robbing from the public coffers untold billions that could have ended up in affordable housing, women's shelters and child care spaces. 

This is all publicly available information. We cannot say that "we did not know." But there is still time to say that, in knowing, we acted, we did something, we refused to be silent.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. "national security" profiling for many years.

Image: contributed photo

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