By Jonathon Gatehouse, CBC News Posted: Feb 06, 2018 2:00 PM ET Last Updated: Feb 07, 2018 8:27 AM ET
(originally posted in http://www.cbc.ca/news/thenational/national-today-newsletter-philippines-olympics-hong-kong-1.4522055)
Helicopters and human rights
The Philippines has inked a $233 million deal to purchase 16 combat utility helicopters from Canada for use in “internal security operations” against Maoist rebels and Islamic State allied extremists.
The agreement, announced this morning, will see the Bell 412EPI choppers delivered early next year as part of President Rodrigo Duterte‘s broad push to modernize his military and bring more power to bear on restive regions of the country.
The deal is sure to raise questions about the Duterte’s government’s true aims, and Canada’s role in arming a regime that stands accused of widespread human rights abuses.
Last May, the Canadian-based International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) wrote to Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland to ask if eight helicopters sold in a 2014 deal with Bell were being used in air campaigns that are alleged to have targeted civilians.
The strikes in Malibcong, Abra, reportedly destroyed farms and forests. The Philippine military is fighting the New People’s Army, an armed communist group in the region.
Duterte has not been particularly concerned about who gets caught in the crossfire. After NPA guerrillas killed four police last March, the president instructed his forces to “go ahead, flatten the hills,” adding, “if there’s collateral damage, pasensiya [a Tagalog word meaning ‘too bad’].”
Justin Trudeaudid raise the issue of human rights in the Philippines— most specifically a war on drugs that has seen the extrajudicial killings of thousands by police — during a face-to-face meeting with Duterte in Manila last November. The prime minister characterized the discussion as “cordial,” but that wasn’t his counterpart’s take.
“It is a personal and official insult,” the Philippines president railed at a news conference. “I only answer to the Filipino. I will not answer to any other bullshit, especially foreigners. Lay off.”
Canada’s foreign arm sales have been under scrutiny since reports last summer that the Saudi Arabian military was using armoured vehicles made in London, Ont., to quell an uprising in a minority Shia Muslim area.
That $15 billion deal was struck by Stephen Harper’s government, but approved by the Liberals shortly after they took office. Ottawa is currently defending the agreement against a Federal Court challenge on the grounds that it contravenes restrictions on exporting arms to countries with a “persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens.”
There are precedents for halting arms sales to the Philippines. In October 2016, the U.S. State Department quashed the export of 26,000 assault rifles after Ben Cardin, a senior member of the Senate, said he would oppose it over human rights concerns.
Duterte reacted with his usual calm.
“Look at these monkeys, the 26,000 firearms we wanted to buy, they don’t want to sell,” he said in a televised speech. “Son of a bitch, we have many homemade guns here. These American fools.”
Last month, during a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, the Philippines president indicated that he might purchase the guns from India.
Below are the letters of ICHRP – Canada:
March 26, 2017
The Honourable Chrystia Freeland
Minister of Foreign Affairs
125 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0G2
Dear Honourable Freeland,
Re: Military bombings on civilian communities in the Philippines and potential Canadian connection
I am writing on behalf of the International Coalition on Human Rights in the Philippines – Canada to bring to your attention our concerns over military attacks on civilian targets in recent weeks and the potential connection to Canada.
Over the past two weeks, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have been conducting a number of aerial strikes on indigenous and rural communities. The escalation of military aerial bombardment on civilians follows the decision of President Duterte on February 6, 2016 to call off the Peace Talks between the Government of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front (NDFP). On March 9, the President instructed the military to ‘drop bombs’ on rebels and consider civilian casualties as ‘collateral damage’. We are concerned that the Philippine military could be using the Bell 412EP helicopters Canada sold in 2014 to the Philippine Army for these aerial bombings.
Since President Duterte’s declaration, the human rights organization, Karapatan, has reported at least 3 cases of military bombings.
- On March 11, at around 2pm, troops of the Philippine Army who were conducting intensive operations dropped at least ten bombs in three villages in the town of Mabini in the province of Compostela Valley.
- In a separate incident on the same day, March 11, a local organization, Suara Bangsamoro reported four bombs were dropped from FA-50 fighter jets from the 57th IBPA forcing the villagers to evacuate to neighbouring communities.
- On March 13, members of a humanitarian mission led by Karapatan observed at least 2 Huey military helicopters hovering over the communities where the troops of the Philippine Army were undertaking intensive operations in two villages in the town of Nasugbo, province of Batangas.
- On March 16, at least 14 bombs were dropped by members of the Philippine Army who were conducting military operations in the town of Malibcong, province of Abra.
While there are no reports of civilian deaths caused by the military bombings, they have sown terror among the villagers and caused immense suffering. Close to 650 families had been forcibly evacuated by these military bombings. In one case, the evacuees included 200 children. The bombings in Malibcong, Abra caused forest fires and burned rice fields.
When the Canadian government announced the sale of the 8 Bell 412EP helicopters to the Philippine Army in 2014, we raised our concerns to the government and parliamentarians that the helicopters might be used against civilian communities in military operations such as what are now taking place.
Information we have gathered on the Philippine Air Force (PAF) says that 3 of Bell 412EP helicopters were commissioned “for VIP and 5 as combat utility helicopters.” The 5 combat utility helicopters were commissioned to PAF’s 205th Tactical Helicopter Wing based in Benito Ebuen Air Base, which is responsible for conducting tactical helicopter operations in support of the Philippine Air Force and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Among the uses of combat utility helicopters are ground attacks and air assaults.
Our concern that the Canadian helicopters might be used in such bombings sprung from reports by human rights organizations and Philippine newspapers about aerial bombings conducted by the Philippine military during counter-insurgency operations against the New People’s Army resulting to the deaths and injuries of civilians, damage to their properties and crops and their forced evacuation.
Officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs assured us in 2014 that Canada’s military export control guidelines were followed in the sale of the Bell 412 helicopters. Additionally, we’ve learned that another Canadian company, Calgary-based Eagle Copters Ltd, had been involved in another helicopter deal to the Philippines.
In view of the escalating occurrences of military bombings on civilian communities and President Duterte’s instruction to the military to use aerial bombings in the war against the NPA and to disregard the harm they inflict on civilian communities,
- We wish to know if the Bell 412EP helicopters and other helicopters sold by Canada to the Philippine Army are being used in these bombing operations.
- We strongly urge the Canadian government to assess whether the criteria for the sale of the helicopters are being observed by the Philippine Army
- We call on the Canadian government to suspend all sales of military goods and all defense-related assistance to and cooperation with the Philippine Government
- We urge the Canadian government to call on President Duterte to put an immediate stop to the military aerial bombings on civilian communities and to vigorously pursue the continuation of the Peace Talks between the GRP and NDFP.
We look forward to hearing from the Minister’s office about this troubling issue and about measures being taken to ensure that Canada is not implicated in operations by the Philippine military against civilian communities through its sales of military goods and other defense-related interests.
(Ms.) Bern Jagunos (on behalf of the ICHRP – Canada)