Politics·Exclusive

Liberals put on the spot by Streit sales in South Sudan and Libya

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has opened the door slightly to closing a legislative loophole that has allowed a Canadian company to sell armoured cars in South Sudan and Libya, two countries gripped by civil wars.

Liberals preach conflict prevention as Canadian company sells armoured cars in war zones

Photos given to CBC news show Streit vehicles in South Sudan outfitted with heavy duty machine guns and painted with camouflage in areas such as Unity State, where violence against civilians has been intense. (Obtained by CBC)

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has opened the door slightly to closing a legislative loophole that has allowed a Canadian company to sell armoured cars in countries gripped by civil wars. 

The Liberal government, determined to restore the country's image as a peacekeeper, was put on the spot this week by some of the business dealings of the Streit Group, which has been criticized in two separate United Nations reports.

CBC News obtained leaked documents and photographs about the company's activities overseas.

Streit, which has a plant in Innisfil, Ont., north of Toronto, shipped hundreds of armoured patrol vehicles into both South Sudan and Libya — trucks that were later outfitted with weapons and used by the South Sudanese military and Libyan militias.

The practice in the arms trade known as diversion — when equipment is allegedly sold for a benign purpose but ends up being used for fighting  — is illegal under international law and specifically prohibited by an international arms trade treaty that the Liberal government has been eager to sign.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speak of promoting peace, stability and security in Africa. But this week's revealations of armoured vehicle exports put them on the spot. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Human rights groups are calling for a federal investigation into whether any of the sales violated economic sanctions in South Sudan or the arms embargo against Libya.

UN investigators monitoring sanctions in both countries criticized the deals, and human rights groups in this country have said the sales have either directly or indirectly contributed to the escalation of violence and possible human rights abuses.

'Responsible role'

Sajjan would not address the Streit deals specifically, but in an interview that airs Saturday on CBC Radio's The House he said everyone operating in fragile states — other governments, businesses and aid organizations — needs to do their to utmost to prevent situations from spiralling out of control.

"This is one thing our government has been very clear on: We will be bring in regulations so that, you know, companies play a responsible role," he told CBC.

Last week, Global Affairs Canada said the Streit deals fell outside of Canada's arms export regime because most of the vehicles were shipped from the company's branch in the United Arab Emirates.

But officials also said they're in the process of overhauling the system and new legislation will be introduced this fall.

The department would not, however, commit to closing the loophole that allows Canadian companies with foreign offices to sell military-grade equipment outside of the country with less scrutiny than deals conducted from home.
A Streit-manufactured vehicle is seen repainted in camouflage in this image given to CBC News. The vehicles were officially destined for police use in South Sudan. (Obtained by CBC News)

Sajjan, who is currently touring Africa looking for places to establish a peacekeeping mission, has preached the necessity for Canada's defence and foreign policy to be oriented towards stabilizing fragile countries that might be on the edge.

"My thing is: It's about understanding (conflicts)," he told CBC News in an interview prior to his departure. "If you are going to be a responsible partner in the world, looking at conflict prevention, especially the work that needs to be done in Africa."

Political problem

Beyond the legislative and policy issues, the Streit Group controversy presents the Liberals with a political and image problem.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to make Canada a force for good and a champion of human rights on the international stage.

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Human rights groups say it's hard to argue Canada is contributing to calm and stability through peacekeeping in trouble spots when it allows companies to sell military-grade equipment that can be used to intensify wars.  

"These transfers that went forward in South Sudan and in Libya undermine the integrity to Canada's commitment to conflict prevention and as we move forward, we need to ensure we have tighter laws, regulations and oversight mechanisms to make sure these sorts of situations aren't repeated," said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.

The Streit Group was asked repeatedly for comment last week, but didn't respond directly to CBC.

In speaking to UN investigators about the Libya case in 2014, Streit officials strenuously rejected the suggestion the company had violated any international or domestic laws.

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

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