Will Canada Continue To Fuel Duterte’s ‘War On Drugs?’

On February 6, the Canadian Commercial Corporation announced the $233 million sale of sixteen combat helicopters to the Philippine air force. In the initial announcement, the public was reassured that the Bell helicopters would be used solely for “disaster relief, search and rescue, passenger transport and utility transport.” However, the Philippine Military Chief of Plans, Major-General Restituto Padilla, stated to journalists that the helicopters would be used for “internal security operations,” such that Canada has subsequently voiced intentions to review the transaction. Amnesty International estimates that 7,000 people have been victims of Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ in the two years since he first came to power in the Philippines.

Canada’s Trade Minister, Francois-Philippe Champagne, has attempted to consolidate the former image, saying, “Human rights is a key element of our foreign policy and of our trade policy.” However, Cesar Jaramillio, Executive Director of Project Ploughsares, a Canadian disarmament group, stated, “it is increasingly hard to reconcile the government’s foreign policy rhetoric with its practice… Why is Canada selling weapons to a known human rights violator?” Similarly, Cristina Palaby, Secretary General of Philippine human rights group, Karapatan, argued “Canada’s arms deal with this murderous regime will render its government complicit in the consequent right violations against the Filipino people” namely, “his announced crackdown of progressive organizations whom he perceives as enemies of the State, the sell-out of ancestral domains of Indigenous communities to businesses and corporations, and his anti-people drug war.”

This recent arms sale to a known human rights perpetrator is not the first time that the Canadian government has overlooked enumerable red flags and failed to do due diligence in its criteria for arms export. In 2016, the Canadian government also supplied US$12bn worth of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The volume of this sale elevated Canada to one of the largest volume arms dealers to the Middle East. Footage later surfaced of the Canadian made and supplied vehicles being used to quell civilian protests and were additionally believed to be used in Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen. Once this was brought to public attention, Canada announced that Saudi Arabia’s use of the armoured vehicles was a violation of the terms of sale and suspended the deal. Nevertheless, Canada remains the fifteenth largest arms exporter in the world and has consistently executed an arms policy that is reactive, rather than proactive in withdrawing weapons from the fault lines of human rights abuse.

At face value, Canada has not been reluctant in criticizing Duterte’s reign. Following Trudeau’s visit to Manila in 2017, Duterte labelled Trudeau’s castigation of the Phillippine security forces a “personal and official insult,” stating, “I will not answer to any other bullshit, especially foreigners. Lay off.” However, this formal disapproval is undercut by the readiness with which Canada has fulfilled Duterte’s military needs. In the past, Duterte ordered the military to ‘flatten the hills’ through aerial bombing and regard civilian casualties as ‘collateral damage’, implicating a further 426,590 civilians in a forcible evacuation. Duterte himself has boasted of pushing a man out of a helicopter. In supplying armoured helicopters to a regime with such an extensively published track record of extrajudicial killings, civilian deaths, evicting Indigenous populations and suppressing legitimate dissent, Canada has become complicit in human rights abuse.

The Trudeau Prime Ministership was expected to engender an era of ‘sunny ways’ for Canada, although the most recent arms sale proves that the administration is not just turning a blind eye to Duterte’s human rights violations, but also taking an active hand in fuelling them. It is imperative that Canada re-marry the foreign policy it espouses publicly with the one it enacts via commercial channels; any conversation between Ottawa and Manila should feature peace talks rather than procurement arrangements.