While some may see Canada’s efforts to reconcile human rights policy, trade policy and foreign policy as futile and akin to “mixing oil with water” (as Melchizedek Maquiso wrote recently in Policy Options), I argue that we must do our utmost to blend them. Refusing to confront the complex interwoven nature of our various international policies is highly counterproductive to Canada’s international image and current strategic goals.

The current Liberal government’s foreign policy, specifically concerning the sales of arms to international partners, attracted significant criticism after a deal to export military equipment to Saudi Arabia, made by the previous government, was allowed to proceed. But it is also important to note that a clear commitment was made to increase the scrutiny of future arms deals. This was done in the interests of protecting civilian lives, living up to Canada’s international reputation as a humanitarian nation and responding to domestic pressure by Canadians. So it’s not hard to see why a recent $233-million sale of 16 Bell helicopters to the Philippines was immediately put under review, effectively killing the deal, after Major-General Restituto Padilla of the Philippines stated that the equipment would be “used for the military’s internal security operations” — after repeated previous claims that the equipment was intended for “search-and-rescue operations.”

Duterte’s highly public “war on drugs” has cost the lives of between 4,000 and 12,000 Filipinos, many of whom were killed by police forces without trial or due process.

This public contradiction raised the eyebrows of the Canadian government and public, especially since Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, has made public statements condoning the extrajudicial killings of drug dealers: “My order is shoot to kill you. I don’t care about human rights, you better believe me.” Duterte’s highly public “war on drugs” has cost the lives of between 4,000 and 12,000 Filipinos, many of whom were killed by police forces without trial or due process. Duterte also recently condoned the shooting of female rebels in the genitals, thus rendering them “useless.” Furthermore, on March 14, 2018, Duterte announced the withdrawal of the Philippines from the International Criminal Court, roughly one month after it launched a preliminary investigation into the country’s “war on drugs,” effectively allowing human rights abuses to be carried out with impunity.

Under these circumstances, it is difficult to find a justified reason to support the sale of military equipment to a regime that is led by such a figure, especially after he publicly commented that he would not answer “to any other bullshit, especially foreigners,” and threatened to throw the UN human rights team to crocodiles. Almost everything Duterte stands for is diametrically opposed to Canadian values such as equality and justice, as well as international law and Canada’s current humanitarian focus.

It is paramount that Canada stand up against acts that so blatantly defy international law and human rights, especially when they sharply contradict our nation’s own values.

Further, while Canada could have just stood by and supported domestic security measures in the Philippines through the arms deal, as Maquiso mentioned, it is paramount that Canada stand up against acts that so blatantly defy international law and human rights, especially when they sharply contradict our nation’s own values. This is especially true after the government publicly committed to more stringent evaluations of arms deals. Many states around the world, including Canada, have dark closets full of abuses, but that does not grant Canada the prerogative to engage in arms trading irrespective of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and domestic policy.

Our current government has also made several clear references to reinvigorating Canada’s international image as a humanitarian nation. Supporting this deal could have caused significant reputational damage, especially after stricter measures were put in place following the $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia; allowing the helicopter deal with the Philippines to be completed would have gone against these measures. One area in which preserving our reputation matters is the UN. Canada is currently vying for a UN Security Council seat in 2021, and succeeding there depends on strong international leadership and support by the international community. If Canada were to turn a blind eye to the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines and simply focus on trade, removing human rights from the equation, Canada’s international image would suffer. Further, the coherence of Canada’s international policy and the government’s push for gender inclusion in various trade deals such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North American Free Trade Agreement and other international agreements would be compromised if Canada simply refused to mix trade and human rights — as Maquiso suggested.

Understanding the international context and its complexities is imperative, especially when a variety of domestic factors — within both the Philippines and Canada — have the ability to influence the international environment. Such an understanding is crucial when examining the Canadian government’s refusal to bend to pressure and alter its commitments in order to complete a deal with a foreign leader who is actively defying human rights and does not seem to care about the consequences of his actions. The collapse of the helicopter sale to the Philippines is more than just a failed trade deal. Instead it should be celebrated as a milestone in Canada’s project of building its international image as a humanitarian nation and exerting its influence within an international setting.

Photo: Protesters belonging to advocacy groups for indigenous communities hold a demonstration criticizing President Rodrigo Duterte and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) outside Camp Aguinaldo military headquarters in Quezon City, March 15, 2018. EPA/ROLEX DELA PENA

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Joshua Johnson
Joshua Johnson is a candidate for a master’s degree in public policy from the School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto. He is also currently managing partner at Auriat Johnson, a public sector consulting firm.

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