Streit Group says it can't 'influence' how its armoured cars are configured abroad

The Canadian company at the centre of controversial armoured car sales denies it did anything wrong in war-torn South Sudan. The Streit Group, which has manufacturing plants all over the world, says its 2014 sale of armoured personnel carriers was approved and handled by export officials in the United Arab Emirates.

Canadian manufacturer denies wrongdoing in South Sudan as arms expert calls for tighter monitoring

Heavy machine guns have been seen mounted on armoured vehicles that were officially destined for police use in South Sudan's Interior Ministry. (Obtained by CBC)

A Canadian-owned company involved in controversial sales of armoured vehicles in South Sudan and Libya has broken its silence.

The Streit Group, which has sales offices and factories around the globe, has been criticized by two separate United Nations panels for its business dealings in the war-ravaged African nations.

In a statement to CBC News released Monday, the company says each of its 12 production centres operate as a separate legal entity and comply with the laws in the jurisdictions in which they are based.

The UN panel monitoring sanctions against Libya accused the United Arab Emirates and Streit of violating the arms embargo imposed following the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi's government with the shipment of dozens of armoured patrol vehicles. Companies in the UAE facilitated the deal.

The Liberal government asked the RCMP to review the UN's findings. A spokeswoman for the Mounties confirmed the force has received the request, but wouldn't say whether it has launched a full-fledged investigation.

The statement from the Streit Group didn't address the case in Libya, but instead focused on criticism of its sales in South Sudan.

Two weeks ago, CBC News revealed — with the help of leaked documents and photographs — that unarmed Cougar and Typhoon armoured personnel carriers (APCs) intended for police use during the height of South Sudan's civil war in 2014 had been outfitted with weapons and diverted to the army.

CBC News asked repeatedly for an interview or comment, but the company didn't formally respond until Monday.

The practise of selling equipment for a benign purpose that's then used in fighting is known as diversion and is a violation of an international arms trade agreement.

Streit says sales 'legitimate'

Streit says its vehicles, manufactured by its UAE division, were purchased by "legitimate government agencies in South Sudan — the National Security Service, Internal Security Bureau and Office of the Director General."

It says it conducted due diligence about the buyers and complied with the economic sanctions imposed against officials accused of causing the civil war.

"We closely monitor the UN sanctions list and none of these agencies appeared on it at the time, or indeed to this day," the statement says.

"It is our responsibility to ensure we comply with export laws in the UAE and country of full legal documentation, including end user statements, was submitted to the relevant authorities." 

A senior military official in South Sudan signed for the vehicles, which human rights groups say should have tipped off the company that something was amiss.

But Streit claims the paperwork didn't pass through its hands.

"To ensure authenticity, original versions of the documentation were supplied directly by the South Sudan government agencies to the UAE Embassy [in that country] — these were never in the possession of Streit Group," the company says.

Weapons of war?

The company challenged the characterization of human rights groups and UN panel investigators who've described the armoured vehicles as military-grade and potential weapons of war.

In its report on Libya, the UN panel said the sale of APCs should be banned in conflict zones because of the potential for diversion.

"The panel believes that all transfers of APCs should be under embargo as they significantly increase the military capability of armed groups," says the report, released in March.

"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."

If the company is based here, it should be responsible and held accountable by the Canadian government.- Walter Dorn, arms control expert, Canadian Forces College

But Streit claims its vehicles have saved "hundreds of thousands" of lives, including members of the Canadian, U.S. and British military.

"They were designed and built to protect people — they are not tactical military vehicles and none of our vehicles are ever shipped with any form of weaponry," the Streit statement reads.

Can't influence process

The company didn't say if it knew about the fate of its APCs in South Sudan, and laid responsibility for their final configuration at the feet of that country's government. 

"We cannot influence this process, but any unapproved modifications made — including addition of weaponry — will invalidate the warranty."

Prior to asking the RCMP to review the Libyan sale, Canada's Global Affairs Department said it could do nothing because the vehicles were manufactured in the UAE, so they fell outside of Canada's arms export regime.

Streit underlined the fact the APCs sold to South Sudan were not built in Canada and plants in North America don't service that market. 

Lots for Liberals to do

Walter Dorn, an arms control expert with the Canadian Forces College, says the Liberal government could help prevent diversion with more aggressive monitoring of international weapons sales and by bolstering certain parts of the UN that combat arms trafficking.

He says the argument that Canada's responsibility ends at the border doesn't wash.

"If it's a Canadian-based company, there shouldn't be this loophole," he said. "If the company is based here, it should be responsible and held accountable by the Canadian government."

If the Liberal government wants to re-engage at the UN, Dorn says, it can start by pushing for a stronger Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), to which Canada plans to accede, and better funding for the international panels that investigate possible violations, like the ones that exposed concerns about South Sudan and Libya.

"Give the UN a stronger verification and compliance regime," he said. "There's lots of room for improvement.