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How will the US react to Duterte's power grab in the Philippines?

Congress is ahead of the Biden administration with a proposal to cut military aid.

Analysis | Washington Politics

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has overseen the extrajudicial killings of thousands of Filipinos under his administration’s infamous “war on drugs,” is not done with politics. 

On August 24, he announced that he intends to run for the vice president slot in 2022, a move he has claimed would provide him immunity to lawsuits. Whether or not Duterte’s intentions prove serious, U.S. relations towards the Philippines government must reflect a greater commitment to the human rights of Filipino journalists, human rights activists, religious leaders, and poor people, all of whom have been targeted, persecuted, and killedby state security forces in recent years. 

So far, campaigns of state violence have done little to discourage the Biden’s administration’s overtures to the Philippines government. In July, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled to Manila, where he described the Philippines as “a vital treaty ally, our oldest in Asia, and an equal and sovereign partner.” During the visit, Duterte agreed to fully restore the Visiting Forces Agreement, a decision viewed as a victory for the Biden administration’s efforts to consolidate partnership and power in Southeast  Asia.

These partnerships, however, must be based on accountability, transparency, and respect for human rights. The Biden administration must not bolster the military relationship with the Duterte government at the expense of its stated commitments to those principles. 

The Philippine Human Rights Act, introduced in June by Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), offers an opportunity for Congress to build greater U.S. credibility on those commitments. The bill would suspend U.S. assistance to the police or military until the Philippines government advances investigations and prosecutions of those responsible. It would also insist on the withdrawal of the military from domestic policing activities and require the government’s commitment to respect and uphold the rights of journalists and civil society activists.

The bill would also signal a serious commitment to preventing U.S. aid from funding human rights abuses. As Duterte’s desire to hold on to political power becomes increasingly clear — whether through his own vice presidential run or through the rumored presidential run by his daughter, Sara Duterte. This is a possibility many see as increasingly likely in light of the news that long-time aide and previously presumed presidential candidate Senator Christopher "Bong" Go will not run, potentially clearing the way for the younger Duterte. But regardless of who takes the helm of government in the Philippines, Washington must insist on an end to impunity for the Duterte administration’s legacy of abuse.

The government’s ongoing campaign of state-sanctioned violence under the “war on drugs” has devastated the country. While the Philippines government has acknowledged nearly 7,000 police killings, evidence suggests the numbers may be much higher, with some estimates placing the total closer to 30,000. As many as 60 children are reported to have been killed between 2016 and 2018. Those suspected of drug-related offences have been kept in overcrowded and unsanitary holding centers, where some say they have been beaten, tortured by police, and forced to pose for photographs with planted drugs. Despite pledges by the Philippine government to address violations, reports of unlawful killings by police and people suspected of being linked to the police continue, and justice for victims remains elusive.

Duterte’s security forces have also targeted and persecuted journalists and activists working to expose the government’s abuses. Last year, Rappler founder Maria Ressa was convicted of cyber libel along with her colleague, journalist Reynaldo Santos, Jr. The verdict carries a penalty of imprisonment ranging from six months to six years and requires Ressa and Santos to pay damages amounting to nearly $8,000.

Ressa and Rappler still face multiple other charges that threaten press freedom. Another outspoken Duterte critic, Senator Leila de Lima, remains in prison four years after she was arrested in an effort to silence her human rights advocacy and criticism of the government’s extrajudicial killings. Murders and attacks against political and human rights activists, lawyers, judges, and journalists who have been “red-tagged” or accused of being “communists” have soared. 

Meanwhile, Duterte’s aggressive and threatening rhetoric has only intensified. At his final presidential address in July 2021, the president defended his drug war, asserting, “Those who destroy my country, I will kill you.” He went on to say that enforcement would have been possible “the legal way” but would have taken too much time. 

In recent months, the International Criminal Court has become the principal target of Duterte’s vitriol. On June 14, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced she would seek authorization from the Court’s judges for a full investigation into crimes against humanity, torture, and other inhumane acts. Duterte, who lashed out by calling the Court’s judges “fools,” has refused to recognize the authority of the Court, despite a ruling in July by the Supreme Court of the Philippines that the government remains obliged to cooperate with the ICC even if it has withdrawn from the Rome Statute. A presidential spokesperson dismissed the judgement, saying it represented only the opinion of the justices and not a legally binding verdict.

Duterte’s intended vice presidential run underscores how successfully he has averted accountability and consequence — including in his relationship with Washington. On June 26, less than two weeks after the ICC called for their investigation, the U.S. Department of Defense approved a potential arms sale to the Philippines worth more than $2.5 billion. A month later, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived on a diplomatic visit to Manila, bolstering Duterte’s image and credibility.

By enacting the Philippines Human Rights Act, Congress will insist that a U.S. alliance with the Philippines is predicated on accountability and respect for international norms. Several lawmakers have already expressed their concern with the continued deterioration of human rights in the country. In July, 11 Democratic Senators wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighting urgent violations that require a response, including the purported “war on drugs,” “red tagging” of activists and rights defenders, and violent assaults on the free press and journalists.  

The Philippine Human Rights Act would tie military aid to ending these abuses. As his presidential term winds down, Duterte’s efforts to avoid accountability and cling to power suggest he will continue to influence politics and security in the Philippines. Passing the Philippines Human Rights Act would indicate a commitment from Congress to establishing and advancing U.S. credibility on the international stage on human rights.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III meets with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila, July 29, 2021. (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)
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