NEWS
02/06/2018 12:20 EST | Updated 02/06/2018 12:21 EST

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

OTTAWA — The Canadian government is facilitating the sale of 16 helicopters to the Philippines 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 media reports say the Philippines government had set aside nearly $300 million for the purchase.

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 Philippines armed forces in 2015.

But it is also the latest to spark concerns from human-rights and arms-control groups, who 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 include extrajudicial killings, the destruction of homes, unlawful arrests and other alleged violations.

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."

Neither the Canadian Commercial Corporation nor Global Affairs Canada responded to questions about whether the government conducted a human-rights assessment before approving the most recent helicopter sale.

But 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.

NDP foreign affairs critic Helene Laverdiere has 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." 

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.