Canadian firm shipped armoured cars to lawless Libya despite UN warning

Despite being warned by the UN in 2014, a Canadian company continued to ship armoured vehicles into the chaos of Libya right up until last year, CBC News has learned.

Documents obtained by CBC show many were 'donated' to local militias

Members of Libyan pro-government forces look on in an army camp in Benghazi in 2015. Libya has been the site of bloody, factional chaos since civil war broke out in 2011. (Esam Omran Al-Fetor/Reuters)

A Canadian-owned company continued to ship dozens of armoured personnel carriers into the bloody, factional chaos of Libya, despite being confronted in 2014 by United Nations investigators who say the sales violated the arms embargo against the war-torn country.

Earlier this year, a UN report criticized the Streit Group, which has a plant in Innisfil, Ont., north of Toronto, for the "illicit transfer" of 131 armoured vehicles in 2012, some of which may have been manufactured in Canada.

Typhoon armoured carriers were among the patrol vehicles delivered to Libya in 2014. (CBC)

The company met with international investigators during the writing of the UN evaluation in 2014 and insisted it had done nothing wrong.

In the course of their interviews, the UN investigators privately raised concern Streit's activities in Libya constituted a violation of sanctions.  

But leaked shipping records and sales delivery schedules obtained by CBC News show the company didn't heed the advice to stop its armoured car shipments to the troubled North African nation.

At least 79 Typhoon and Spartan patrol vehicles were delivered to the effectively lawless nation in 2014, according to records obtained from highly placed sources.

Human rights groups say the documents raise further concerns about whether the company's sales and practices have inflamed civil wars in not only Libya, but other African nations such as South Sudan and the Darfur region of Sudan.

"When we're talking about arms deals with countries like South Sudan and Libya, that raises very serious red flags," said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

"There is absolutely no question that a decision to sell arms, in the context of those two countries, contributed either directly or indirectly to the worsening human rights situation in both of those countries and simply should not have been something the company considered to do at all."

Vehicles 'donated' through 4 companies

Leaked shipping records also show Streit's sales were brokered through middlemen.

At least four separate companies, one American and three from the United Arab Emirates, purchased the vehicles.

Almost all of the vehicles the UAE companies bought, which were unarmed when shipped, were "donated" to either local militias — such as the Sawaq Brigade — or the Libyan Interior Ministry at a time when there was no cohesive government.

The UAE, which has supported rebel factions in the North African country since 2011, admitted to UN investigators that it often had trouble confirming who received the vehicles because of the chaos in Libya.

The paper trail and published reports in the region show further deliveries took place last year.

In fact, one shipment was seized by Greek patrol ships in July 2015 — on the suspicion it violated the arms embargo — and wasn't released by UN officials until last December when the newly recognized government laid claim to it.

The cargo ship had been bound for Misrata, which has been the scene of a number of ISIS attacks.

Protesters stand atop a vehicle as others burn in front of the National Conference Hall in Tripoli in 2014. Libya was essentially a lawless nation in 2014 as fighting continued between rival parliaments and jihadist and tribal groups. (Mohamed Ben Khalifa/Associated Press)

UN panel says sanctions breached

A UN panel that monitors the arms embargo, imposed as Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's regime unravelled in 2011, concluded that the UAE "donation" of Streit vehicles in 2012 and other weapons transfers breached the sanctions.

The Streit Group, which is owned by Canadian businessman Guerman Goutorov, was repeatedly asked for comment by CBC, but did not respond.

It did answer questions from UN investigators looking into the Libya case.

Company officials handed over a variety of records showing the transfer of Cougar, Spartan and Cobra-type vehicles in 2012, as well as customs declarations. Streit insisted it had done nothing wrong.

"In its response, the company 'strenuously reject any suggestion that Streit Group could knowingly or otherwise break national or international law,'" the panel's report says.

Human rights lawyer Paul Champ says the UN report provides the Canadian government with ample evidence to investigate and possibly prosecute Streit for allegedly violating the Special Economic Measures Act. He says the Liberal government should have acted last spring when the panel issued its report.

Global Affairs Canada has argued that because the company's dealings were conducted in the UAE and brokered through that country, there's nothing Canada can do under its existing arms export regime.

Officials say they take the issue seriously and the Liberal government is committed to strengthening Canada's trade export rules through transparency and by acceding to the Arms Trade Treaty.

Neve doesn't buy the explanation and says there should be an investigation.

"It is stunning and deeply disappointing to see that a Canadian company — whatever the nature of their offshore operations were — was selling military equipment to South Sudan, in the middle of that country's brutal civil war, and also to Libya in the midst of the chaos and lawlessness that has prevailed there over the last five years," he said.

UN, Canada at odds

In a further twist, it looks as though the Canadian government may have approved the 2012 shipment of some of the Streit vehicles that the UN was originally upset about.

Streit has plants in nine countries, including Canada and the United Arab Emirates. It also has offices in war-torn regions such as South Sudan and Libya. (CBC News)

According to reports tabled in June in Parliament, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird signed off on $2.68 million in armoured vehicle export sales to Libya during 2012-13, the same time frame the UN was investigating.

Officials in the now-renamed department Global Affairs Canada wouldn't say which company's export approval was involved, only that the sales were "not prohibited by existing United Nations sanctions on Libya."

But UN investigators clearly disagree.

A 2013 resolution somewhat relaxed the conditions on Libya by allowing for the transfer of non-lethal equipment, which could include unarmed military armoured personnel carriers, or APCs.

The panel, which advises the UN secretary general, says easing those conditions was a mistake that should be rectified.

"The panel believes that all transfers of APCs should be under embargo as they significantly increase the military capability of armed groups," the panel's report says. "In addition, most types of APCs identified by the panel can easily be mounted with weapons after delivery. The panel is also concerned about diversions of this... [material] to militias."

Streit's South Sudan controversy

It's the second time the UN has linked the Streit Group to the practice of diversion.

A separate report and a series of leaked documents — obtained this week by CBC News — show 173 armoured vehicles destined for the police in South Sudan in 2014 were diverted for army use in the brutal ongoing civil war.

Champ says Streit's dealings in Libya and South Sudan exploit a loophole in arms export rules and rewriting those regulations, including the ones that permitted the federal government's $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, is long overdue.

"Right now, Canada's export control regime in respect to goods and weapons and armaments, I think, are the weakest among all the NATO countries," he said. "If you look at the Export Permits Act and the export control list, it's very, very vaguely worded and I think would be impossible to enforce."