When International Trade Secretary Liam Fox celebrated the “shared values” between the UK and the Philippines on a visit to the country last year, his comments were met with outrage from human rights activists. President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime has killed as many as 12,000 people in a drug war, while Duterte personally has boasted about ordering the arrests of his critics.
Now the New Statesman can reveal that Fox’s words were followed up with action.
Six months after the minister’s visit, the British government offered the Philippines materials for “urban warfare” and “cyber security”, despite Duterte’s drug war being known for targeting the urban poor.
According to a diplomatic telegram obtained by the New Statesman, the Philippine government “appreciated the UK offer in areas like air defence, maritime surveillance, urban warfare, and cyber security”, made at the 2017 Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair in London.
The telegram – which details a meeting between the Prime Minister’s special envoy to the ASEAN economic community, Richard Graham MP, and Philippine defence minister Delfin Lorenzana in September last year – states that the two countries were looking to sign a defence memorandum of understanding that “would boost cooperation and promote defence exports”.
The memorandum on defence cooperation was eventually signed in December.
The document also states that UK Export Finance, the government agency that underwrites loans and insurance for risky export deals as part of efforts to boost international trade, was prepared to support a “package for PH [Philippine] defence procurement projects taking in companies such as Thales and Rolls Royce”.
We asked Thales and Rolls Royce to respond to this story, questioning both companies on whether they were involved in any deals selling arms to the Philippines, and what rules or guidelines they had in place to ensure their equipment was not used by regimes committing human rights abuses.
A spokesperson for Thales declined to comment on whether the company is involved in UK arms deals with the Philippines but said: “Thales fully complies with national and international regulations related to export control. Thales works within an international framework of treaties, and the UK export control regime is one of the most robust and transparent in the world.”
Rolls Royce also declined to comment on whether the company was involved in UK arms deals with the Philippines. But a spokesperson offered: “With regards to policy around defence exports it is a function of Governments – not of individual companies – to determine the markets to which it is acceptable for defence products to be exported. This government policy translates into export control law with which the company fully complies.”
The news comes as the UK actively looks to increase trade deals with countries in south-east Asia as it prepares to leave the EU. However, Labour MPs have expressed unease that the government is ignoring human rights concerns while doing so.
Duterte’s drug war began in the summer of 2016, after the newly-elected president pledged to free his country of drug dealers and users. Yet from the start, he threatened to do it in the most bloody of ways. On 30 September 2016, at a press conference in his home city of Davao, he said: “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there are three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them. If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have…” he then pointed at himself. (Duterte was not only offensive but inaccurate – up to six million Jews were estimated to have been murdered in the Holocaust).
Though the targeting of drug dealers and users has been primarily a police operation, the Philippine military has also been involved.
In February 2017, President Duterte ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines to take a frontline role in the drug war, when the Philippine National Police temporarily suspended their anti-drugs operations after the alleged killing of a South Korean businessman by anti-drugs officers.
Since President Duterte was elected in May 2016, the UK has continued to sell the country weapons.
The UK has licensed £4.5m worth of military equipment to the regime, according to Campaign Against the Arms Trade a group which tracks export licensing data from the Department for International Trade.
This data, which only goes up to September 2017 at the time of writing, shows that the biggest individual license to the Philippines was in November 2016, for military combat vehicles and weapon control equipment. There has been a further £646,000 worth of small arms licences, equipment like machine guns and assault rifles, in the same period. There were also £150,000 worth of licences for “telecommunication interception equipment”.
Under UK law, the government should refuse to license sales of military equipment if there is a “clear risk that the items might be used for internal repression”.
The UK did refuse two licences for “telecommunication interception equipment” in December 2016 and January the following year, citing “risk of use for internal repression” and “risk of diversion or re-export to undesirable end-users”. However, it approved a licence months earlier in July. A licence for sniper equipment and other small arms was also turned down in October 2016 due to a “risk of use for internal repression”, but later small arms licences were approved.
The coalition government came under fire in 2014 when it subtly changed the law on export controls to include the term “clear risk”. Previously a licence could be refused if there was a “concern” that the material could be used for internal repression.
Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who sits on the parliamentary committees on arms export controls, said the revelation that the UK had offered the Philippines military support raised “serious questions about the [UK] government’s application of arms export control law”.
“These laws should stop the approval of this class of surveillance equipment to a country whose leader is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for a ‘war on drugs’. This is not about locking up drug addicts. It is about the state killing sick people in the streets, without trial. The government faces not only a moral but a legal question: it is illegal under British law to approve sales of tools that could be used for internal repression.”
Andrew Smith of CAAT said: “The political situation in the Philippines has become increasingly repressive, and the arms dealers have been more than happy to cash in on it. By promoting and licensing small arms and surveillance equipment the government is providing political and military support for a regime that has shown a consistent contempt for human rights.”
We asked the UK government what assurances it had received from the Philippines that British equipment would not be used in the drug war or for internal repression.
A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade said:
“The UK government takes its export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world.
“All export licence applications are considered on a case-by-case basis and we will not license the export of items, where there is a clear risk that the goods may be used for internal repression.”
The Philippine government was involved in a fight against pro-Islamic State fighters in the southern city of Marawi until October last year.
President Duterte’s regime has also stepped up operations against communist rebels in the country. In December, the Philippine army claimed it had killed at least 15 members of the New People’s Army in the province of Batangas, in the north of the country.
Duterte garnered international headlines in February for saying that the army should shoot female communist soldiers in the genitals to render them “useless”.
Human rights advocates in the country have warned of increased repression in the country, since Duterte took office in 2016.
Last month, the UN responded angrily when one of its special rapporteurs was placed on a 600-strong list of “terrorist sympathisers” by the regime.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the special rapporteur on indigenous rights who lives in the country, said allegations that she was part of a Maoist rebel group were “baseless, malicious and irresponsible”.
When asked to comment on this story, Carlos Conde, a Manila-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, said: “Given the history of abuses by state security forces and the potential for misuse of this military equipment from the UK, it is imperative that the British government takes steps to ensure that that this does not happen with this material. The UK has an obligation to ensure that its military assistance does not contribute to human rights violations.”