OTTAWA: Just one day after signing a $233 million agreement to sell 16 helicopters to the Philippines, the Canadian government on Wednesday ordered a review of the deal amid concerns the aircraft could be used to fight rebels.
In response, President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman warned Manila may do its helicopter shopping elsewhere.
Canda's Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said that the deal - formally signed on Tuesday - had been struck in 2012 on the understanding the helicopters would be used for search-and-rescue missions.
Philippine Major-General Restituto Padilla, military chief of plans, told Reuters on Tuesday the helicopters would be used for the military's internal security operations, adding they could also be deployed in search-and-rescue and disaster relief operations.
"When we saw that declaration ... we immediately launched a review with the relevant authorities. And we will obviously review the facts and take the right decision," Champagne told reporters, without giving more details.
The Bell 412EPI helicopters were due be delivered early next year as the Philippine military prepares to step up operations against Islamist and communist rebels.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asked later whether he was concerned the helicopters might be used against Filipino citizens, replied "Absolutely."
Canada has very clear regulations about to whom it can sell weapons and how they can be used, he said during a question and answer event at the University of Chicago.
"We are going to make sure before this deal or any other deal goes through that we are abiding by the rules ... that Canadian governments have to follow," he said.
In November, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte publicly criticised Trudeau at a regional summit in Manila for raising questions about his war on drugs.
Nearly 4,000 Filipinos have been killed by police in the campaign since June 2016. Human rights groups accuse police of carrying out illegal killings, staging crime scenes and falsifying reports, a charge they deny.
"Human rights is a key element of our foreign policy and of our trade policy," said Champagne.
In 2016, the Liberal government was criticised for deciding to honour a contract to sell light armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia, despite human rights concerns. Like the helicopter contract, the deal had been arranged by Canada's former Conservative administration.
The Philippine military on Thursday denied it planned to use the helicopters as attack aircraft against local insurgents.
President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman warned Manila may walk away from the deal in light of the controversy.
"If they don't want to sell, well, we may consider the prospect of procuring them from other sources," presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters Thursday.
The military stressed they were "utility helicopters, not attack helicopters".
"They must not politicise the acquisition," said Major-General Restituto Padilla, the deputy chief of staff for plans and programmes of the Philippine armed forces.
According to the Philippine defence department, the deal was signed with trade promotion outfit Canadian Commercial Corp last December, shortly after Trudeau clashed with Duterte during a Manila visit over alleged Philippine police murders of thousands of drug suspects.
The Philippines employs attack helicopters and planes to support ground troops battling militants in the Muslim south, as well as against communist guerrillas in other parts of the mainly Catholic Asian nation.
A Philippine defence department spokesman told AFP on Wednesday the air force would use the Bell 412EPI aircraft, worth US$234.8 million, for disaster response and humanitarian missions, but also for "anti-terrorism".
However, Padilla said Thursday this did not mean they would be used as "attack helicopters".
"Not at all. They are purely for utility purposes -- ergo, transport purposes especially during HADR operations," he said, using a military term for disaster response.
"We have separate and dedicated attack helicopters."
Apart from armed insurgencies, the Philippines is also regularly battered by typhoons.
"These will be used to transport personnel, supplies, humanitarian missions, ferrying of wounded and injured soldiers, and other forms of humanitarian assistance and disaster response," Roque, the Duterte spokesman, said.
Bell Helicopter said the Philippine military would use the aircraft "for a variety of missions such as disaster relief, search and rescue, passenger transport and utility transport".
Trudeau said in November he had called out Duterte over "human rights, the rule of law, and specifically extrajudicial killings".
Duterte, who has overseen a crackdown that has left nearly 4,000 drug suspects dead at the hands of the police, later described Trudeau's comments as "a personal and official insult".
The Philippine government says police only shot the suspects in self-defence and rejects human rights monitors' description of the crackdown as a crime against humanity.
Original post: bangkokpost.com
Follow-on Bell 412 order for Philippine Air Force