Canada to review helicopter deal with Philippines – reports

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Canadian government on Wednesday, February 7, said it will review a deal with the Philippines over the sale of 16 helicopters, over concerns on how the helicopters will be used.

The Philippines has bought 16 new Bell helicopters from Canada for about US$235 million, defense officials said Wednesday.

The Philippine defense department signed the P12 billion (US$234.8 million) Bell 412EPI deal with the state-run Canadian Commercial Corp, with deliveries set to start in 9 months, ministry spokesman Arsenio Andolong told Agence France-Presse.

"These are multi-purpose aircraft for anti-terrorism as well as HADR," he said, using military lingo that refers to disaster response and humanitarian missions.

After the Philippine military's announcement, however, Canadian Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said the deal will be reviewed, Reuters reported.

The concern is that the new helicopters would be used to strengthen the Philippines' fight against Islamic militants and other domestic insurgencies, the report said.

When the deal was struck in 2012, Canada understood that the aircraft will be used for search-and-rescue operations during disasters, not for use in fighting rebels.

Human rights groups in Canada criticized the deal, asking if the Canadian government conducted a human-rights assessment before approving the most recent deal, Global News Canada reported.

Champagne said that they will now review the deal.

"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," he was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Buy elsewhere?

The Philippine government said on Thursday, February 8, that it can always opt to purchase the helicopters elsewhere.

“We purchased helicopters. If they don’t want to sell, well we may consider the prospect of procuring them from other sources,” Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a news briefing on Thursday.

Roque noted that the helicopters would be used “for the transportation of military and personnel, supplies, humanitarian mission, ferrying of wounded soldiers and other forms of humanitarian assistance and disaster response.”

The Philippine military made a similar statement.  "You must understand that these are utility helicopters, not attack helicopters," Major-General Restituto Padilla, the deputy chief of staff for plans and programmes of the Philippine armed forces, told Agence-France Presse on Thursday.

"They must not politicize the acquisition," Padilla added.

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.

'Anti-terrorism' 

A Philippine defense department spokesman told AFP on Wednesday its air force would use the Bell 412EPI aircraft, worth $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."

The Philippine defense department acquired 8 of the same Bell aircraft model in 2015, which it said went mostly to an air force unit assigned to provide air transport for the Philippine president.

The Philippine military also uses derivations of the Bell-UH-1H helicopter, which first saw service for the US military in the Vietnam War in the early 1960s.

The two governments announced the deal less than 3 months after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau clashed with host President Rodrigo Duterte over Philippine drug war killings, on the sidelines of a Manila summit.

Trudeau said during the November summit that he 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", adding he would only answer to his Filipino electorate.

The Philippine government said police only shot the suspects in self-defense and rejected human rights monitors' description of the crackdown as a crime against humanity. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com