OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is taking a second look at plans to sell 16 Canadian-made helicopters to the Philippine military as concerns continue to mount about how the aircraft will be used.
The government initially defended the $300-million deal, which is being facilitated by the Canadian Commercial Corp., saying the Montreal-built Bell helicopters would be used for search-and-rescue missions and disaster relief.
But International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne announced Wednesday that he had ordered a review after a senior member of the Philippine military said the aircraft would also be used in “internal security operations.”
Human-rights and arms-control groups have accused the armed forces in the Philippines of extrajudicial killings, torture and other atrocities while fighting Islamic militants in the south of the country, and communist rebels in other areas.
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.
Champagne said the deal, which was quietly finalized in December, was conducted through a memorandum of understanding between Canada and the Philippines signed by the previous Conservative government in 2012.
“At the time, the understanding suggested that these helicopters were for search-and-rescue operations,” he said during a hastily called news conference outside the House of Commons.
“The moment that I saw a statement by a senior military official in the Philippines which indicated otherwise, I immediately asked the Canadian Commercial Corp. for a review.”
Champagne added that neither he nor any other ministers were asked to authorize the contract.
Trudeau, asked about the matter Wednesday during a Q and A session at the University of Chicago, said the government is “still in the process of looking at” the deal.
“We have very clear rules around who and what we can sell — either arms or potential military vehicles, helicopters — and controls on what they intend to be used for and checks on how they are used,” he said.
“We’re going to make sure, before this deal or any other deal goes through, that we are abiding by the rules and the expectations that aren’t just, sort of, values, but actual rules that Canadian governments have to follow when we’re looking at deals like this.”
The company has so far remained tight-lipped about the deal, including whether it conducted any human-rights assessments before completing the contract.
But it’s not the first time the Crown corporation, whose role includes selling military goods to other countries on behalf of the government, has facilitated the sale of arms to a country with a questionable human-rights record.