Human-rights concerns loom over sale of Canadian helicopters to the Philippines

The Canadian government is facilitating the sale of 16 helicopters to the Philippine military, which human rights groups have accused of killing civilians and committing other atrocities while waging a war on two rebel groups.

Trudeau raised concerns about extrajudicial killings while visiting the country last fall

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte before the opening ceremony of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila last November. The Philippines signed a deal with Canada on Tuesday to buy 16 combat utility helicopters worth $233.36 million. (Mark R. Cristino/EPA-EFE)

The Canadian government is facilitating the sale of 16 helicopters to the Philippine military, which human rights groups have accused of killing civilians and committing other atrocities while waging a war on two rebel groups.

The Canadian Commercial Corp., whose role includes selling military goods to other countries on behalf of the government, says the Philippines agreed to buy the Canadian-made Bell helicopters at the end of December.

The Crown corporation would not reveal any other details about the deal, citing commercial confidentiality, but Reuters reported the Philippines government spent $233.36 million on the helicopters.

The deal represents another win for the Canadian defence industry when it comes to the Southeast Asian nation; Canada also sold eight Bell helicopters made in Montreal to the Philippine armed forces in 2015.

But it is also the latest to spark concerns from human-rights and arms-control groups, which have previously raised red flags about recent Canadian arms deals with Saudi Arabia, Colombia and other destinations.

They say there is evidence the Philippine military has been committing human-rights abuses while fighting Islamist militants on the southern island of Mindanao and in a war against communist rebels in other parts of the country.

Those allegations include extrajudicial killings, the destruction of homes, unlawful arrests and other alleged violations.

Concerns about extrajudicial killings

Last year, the Canada-based International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines wrote to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland asking whether the Canadian helicopters sold in 2015 had been used for such purposes.

Bern Jagunos, who wrote the letter on behalf of the coalition, told The Canadian Press on Tuesday that Freeland never responded. The most recent sale, Jagunos added, only underscores the need for answers and safeguards.

"We are concerned," Jagunos said. "And we want the government to look into that to see if the helicopters are indeed being used in combat that are harming and killing civilians."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also raised concerns about extrajudicial killings while visiting the country in November, specifically those related to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's violent crackdown on illegal drugs.

Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Brianne Maxwell said the deal would support more than a thousand jobs in the Montreal region, and that the helicopters would be used "explicitly for the purposes of disaster relief, search and rescue, passenger transport, and utility transport."

"The end use and the end user of exports, as well as regional stability and human rights, are among the essential considerations in the authorization of permits for the export of controlled goods from Canada," Maxwell said in an email.

NDP criticize Trudeau government  

But Maj.-Gen. Restituto Padilla, military chief of plans, told Reuters that the helicopters "will be used for the military's internal security operations," in addition to search-and-rescue and disaster relief missions.

NDP foreign affairs critic Helene Laverdiere added her voice to the chorus of concern, writing on Twitter: "How can Trudeau justify this deal with the Philippines when Duterte's government has plunged the country into a terrible human rights crisis?"

Cesar Jaramillo of arms-control group Project Ploughshares, said Canada has already supported the military of a known human-rights abuser through the multibillion-dollar sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

The helicopter deal with the Philippines, he said, represents yet another example.

"President Duterte's government has achieved global notoriety for its blatant disregard of basic human rights and its systematic threats against human rights activists," Jaramillo said in an email.

"The fact that Canadian equipment is making its way to the Philippine military raises serious questions about the effectiveness of Canada's exports controls-and about potential Canadian complicity, however unintended, in instances of human rights violation."