SEATTLE, Washington– In September 2020, Rep. Susan Wild (D-PA) introduced H.R. 8313, the Philippine Human Rights Act, in response to the escalation of human rights abuses by Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte. The bill, which is co-sponsored by 30 other lawmakers, would end all security assistance to the Philippine military and police forces until the Duterte regime ends its human rights abuses. The bill states that the aid ban would be lifted after substantive reforms are made, such as removing the military from domestic policing operations, revising the judicial system to be free from political interference, prosecuting police and military officials who violate human rights and establishing the rights of vulnerable groups, such as indigenous communities and LGBT activists.
The Philippines’ War on Drugs
Since Duterte assumed office in 2016, the Philippines has been named one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists and critics of the government. This is largely due to a war on drugs which Duterte launched after being elected on an anti-crime and anti-narcotics platform. The crackdown has given police “permission to kill,” resulting in at least 8,663 extrajudicial killings so far. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights found that police regularly conduct house raids and force suspects into incriminating themselves with the threat of lethal force. In these policies, the Philippine Government has specifically targeted journalists, human rights activists, trade unionists and lawyers, resulting in at least 248 killings between 2015 and 2019. Accountability for human rights violations is nearly impossible. Since 2016, only one police officer has been convicted of killing a drug suspect.
The Philippines’ war on drugs has drawn further attention for its escalation in the past several months. The COVID-19 pandemic has made dissent even more dangerous as Duterte has used special power laws to file criminal charges against anyone who criticizes the government online. In July, Duterte signed the Anti-Terrorism Act into law, which allows a self-appointed council to enact warrantless arrests of people suspected to be terrorists. However, the legislation’s definition of terrorism is vague and considers anyone who is perceived as promoting the intimidation of the government or damage to public property to be a terrorist. Human rights activists have criticized this policy as an opportunity for Duterte to target his critics and political dissidents. Moreover, the law allows for 24-day detention without charge, which goes against the Philippine constitution’s current three-day limit.
The Role of the United States
The United States is a currently major supporter of the Philippine police force, routinely sending tens of millions of dollars per year for training services and counter-terror efforts. Duterte has used this aid to his advantage by launching a program to modernize the Philippine police and military and expand policing in rural regions. The U.S. is also a key supplier to the Philippine military, having provided $440 million in security aid since 2016. In the first nine months of 2020 alone, the Trump administration sold over $83 billion in arms to the Philippine military, surpassing total sales for all of 2019. This includes a $1.5 billion package of helicopters, bombs and missiles, some of which were used in Duterte’s counterinsurgency aerial attacks, which have displaced 450,000 people in the island of Mindanao so far. The Philippine Human Rights Act intends to cut off this aid until the human rights situation improves.
The Future of H.R. 8313
The Philippine Human Rights Act carries large implications for the U.S.-Philippine relationship, as Duterte has threatened to end its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the U.S. if the act were to pass. The VFA, signed in 1998, provides U.S. service members streamlined access to the Philippines and outlines clear procedures for handling legal issues between U.S. forces and Philippine civilians. Duterte threatened to terminate the VFA in February 2020 but suspended the termination in June after receiving another military package from the U.S.
Officially ending the VFA, however, would make the U.S. military presence in the Philippines significantly more difficult and threaten the U.S.-Philippines alliance. In spite of these concerns, civil society groups and human rights organizations continue to highlight the urgent state of human rights under Duterte’s regime. The Philippine Human Rights Act has been referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Financial Services for review.
– Neval Mulaomerovic