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Why I’m fighting to pass the Philippine Human Rights Act

A protester kicks an effigy of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. during a rally as they commemorate International Human Rights Day, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022, in Manila, Philippines. Hundreds of people marched in the Philippine capital on Saturday protesting what they said was a rising number of extrajudicial killings and other injustices under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

On March 7, 2021, Filipino labor leader Manny Asuncion and eight other activists were killed by state security forces in coordinated raids across the Philippines in an event that has since become popularly known there as “Bloody Sunday.” In January, the Philippine Department of Justice dismissed a criminal case implicating 17 police officers in Asuncion’s killing.

As is overwhelmingly the case in the Philippines, no degree of justice or accountability is expected for any of the murders. Like countless other human rights and environmental activists, labor leaders, journalists, clergy members, and dissidents, these activists were casualties of a so-called “War on Drugs” that the Philippine government has been waging since 2016. In fact, it has served as a pretext to repress labor organizing, beat back political opposition, and crush dissent. According to leading human rights organizations, this policy has led to as many as 30,000 extrajudicial killings in the past six years, with countless more injured, tortured, “red-tagged” (baselessly accused of belonging to an armed insurrection group), and languishing in prison cells.

This March 7, on the second anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I reintroduced my bill, the Philippine Human Rights Act to condition all U.S. security assistance to the Philippines on respect for basic human rights standards. Those standards include the effective protection of labor leaders and activists, journalists, religious and faith leaders, and dissidents; a functioning judiciary capable of prosecuting members of police and military units; and the withdrawal of military forces from domestic policing activities, in accordance with the constitution of the Philippines.

U.S. administrations of both parties have funneled $1.14 billion in military equipment and training to the Philippines between 2015 and 2022, making the country by far the largest recipient of U.S. assistance in Southeast Asia. From a national security perspective, the argument that propping up the Philippine government helps us address the threat from China should be turned on its head. With every new victim of the brutal government in Manila, we are in fact undermining our greatest asset vis-à-vis Beijing: Our own case as a credible, consistent defender of democracy and human rights. 

At a time when President Biden rightly argues that we are facing a critical global contest between democracy and autocracy, the fact of the matter is this: the United States should not be unconditionally funding one of the world’s most repressive governments—one that has targeted United States citizens like environmental activist Brandon Lee, who remains paralyzed as the result of a 2019 assassination attempt.

For an administration that has been outspoken in its support for labor unions here at home, continuing to uncritically support the government of the Philippines is problematic: In 2022, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) placed the Philippines among the world’s ten most repressive countries for workers and the labor movement for the sixth consecutive year. As the ITUC notes, more than 50 trade unionists have been killed in the Philippines since 2016.

As the representative of a district with a multigenerational history of labor organizing, I am proud to stand with Communications Workers of America (CWA) and other leading labor unions here at home in defending a simple principle: Workers in the Philippines—along with people throughout society—should be able to stand up for their rights without risking their lives.

The United States and the Philippines share a long and complex history. Our responsibility in this moment is clear: We must finally build a U.S.-Philippines relationship that places the fundamental rights and dignity of the Filipino people at its center.

Susan Wild represents the 7th District of Pennsylvania and is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Tags asia policy Biden Human rights Philippine Human Rights Act

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