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Liberal MP Francois-Philippe Champagne responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government has ordered a review of Canada's deal to sell helicopters to the Philippine military amid rising concerns about supplying armed forces that have been accused of unlawful killings in the Asian country.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she is prepared to block the export of the aircraft if necessary, and expressed serious misgivings about human-rights violations under the Duterte government in the Philippines.

International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne told reporters the review was prompted by comments from a Filipino military officer regarding the intended use of these equipment.

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Philippines Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, military chief of plans, told media on Tuesday, the day that news of the deal was released, that the helicopters "will be used for the military's internal security operations."

The federal government did not immediately answer questions on when the deal was reached. A Global Affairs spokeswoman had told reporters this week that Canada was under the impression the helicopters would be used for "disaster relief, search and rescue, passenger transport and utility transport."

The Philippine military has said the 'copters might also be used for these humanitarian purposes. The Liberal government was on the defensive earlier this week over why Ottawa would allow a deal with the Philippines' armed forces after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau voiced concerns over human-rights abuses by the country's security forces.

Mr. Trudeau drew international headlines last November after he raised the matter of extrajudicial killing with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at an international summit in Manila. Mr. Duterte later lashed out publicly at Mr. Trudeau, calling foreign questioning of the matter "a personal and official insult."

The deal for 16 choppers, brokered by the Canadian Commercial Corp., a Crown corporation, is worth more than US$233.36-million. The helicopters are produced by Bell Helicopter in Mirabel, Que. The federal riding of Mirabel is held by the Bloc Québécois.

No export permits yet have been issued in the Philippines deal.

Mr. Champagne told reporters that the government has not approved any permits and none had been sought. He said he is asking the Crown corporation to review the contract immediately.

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Most export permits are approved by the Global Affairs bureaucracy, and only a small fraction each year are sent to the foreign affairs minister for a decision, usually because there is disagreement within the civil service or the deal is controversial.

Ms. Freeland vowed in the Commons to investigate this deal.

"The Prime Minister and I have been very clear about the Duterte regime's human-rights violations and extrajudicial killings including while [we visited] the Philippines. I will conduct an extremely rigorous human rights analysis of any potential export permit application related to this contract," Ms. Freeland said.

"I have the power to deny a permit if I feel that it poses a risk to human rights, and I am prepared to do so."

Mr. Champagne said this deal was made in accordance with the terms of an agreement between Canada and the Philippines in 2012, when the Harper government was in power.

The deal was announced as the Philippines military prepares to step up operations against Islamist and communist rebels.

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Arms-control advocates question why the Trudeau government is helping equip the military of a country in which death squads have carried out unlawful or unauthorized killings for years – activities that have prompted concern at the highest levels in Ottawa.

Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a disarmament group that is an agency of the Canadian Council of Churches, said the deal reveals weaknesses in Canada's arms-control system.

"The notion that the Philippine military intends to use the helicopters for internal security operations is not at all surprising," he said. "The comments from the Philippine military about the intended use of the helicopters simply confirm the type of risks involved that a rigorous export controls regime should detect."

The arms-control advocate noted the difference in how the Trudeau government has handled two arms deals. In the case of a $15-billion Saudi arms deal reached by the Harper government, the Liberals said they could not break a contract, Mr. Jaramillo said, adding that they appear more flexible in a much smaller deal.

"It is somewhat striking that a single comment from the Philippine military prompted the announcement of this review one day later, while the multibillion-dollar Saudi arms deal has withstood years of concrete red flags about the overriding risk that Canadian equipment might be misused there," he said.

Last November, Mr. Trudeau told Canadians he personally pressed Mr. Duterte on human rights.

"As I mentioned to President Duterte, we're concerned with human rights, with the extrajudicial killings," Mr. Trudeau said at the time. The Prime Minister said Canada has "a reputation for being able to have strong and frank, sometimes firm, discussions around the rule of law and human rights with its partners."

Under the deal, the Bell 412EPI helicopters are to be delivered early next year as Mr. Duterte refocuses the armed forces modernization program to tackle growing domestic threats as Maoist fighters and pro-Islamic State extremists try to regroup.

According to Human Rights Watch, since taking office in 2016, Mr. Duterte has carried out a "war on drugs" in which death of more than 7,000 suspected drug dealers and addicts have been killed.

Cases investigated by the media and rights groups "invariably found unlawful executions by police or agents of the police typically acting as death squads," Human Rights Watch says.

With a report from Reuters

The prime minister says the president of the Philippines was receptive to concerns he raised about human rights. Rodrigo Duterte’s violent crackdown on drug dealers and drug users by his government's forces has left thousands dead. The Canadian Press
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