Congress must act to end US military aid to the Philippines
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is one of the most repressive leaders in the world. His police and military forces, joined by government-aligned death squads, have killed at least 8,000 people in their alleged “war on drugs” — a cover for a repressive campaign that has targeted opponents of the regime, including human rights defenders, lawyers, trade unionists, indigenous people and land rights activists.
In July, Duterte made a bad situation worse by imposing a draconian anti-terror law that makes it even easier to violently crush dissent and thwart even modest moves towards genuine democracy and accountability. A letter organized by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and signed by 49 other members of Congress described the impact of the new law. It noted that given the Duterte government’s “long track record of using drug laws and martial law in parts of the country to target innocent activists who did nothing other than speak out against government policies, we clearly are left with no option but to view this as just the latest and most egregious effort to silence those fighting for basic and fundamental human rights in the Philippines.”
The Duterte regime’s murderous character was further underscored by the August 17 killing of Zara Alvarez, a paralegal with the Filipino human rights coalition Karapatan, by a government-affiliated death squad. She was the thirteenth member of Karapatan to be murdered by the Duterte government and its allies. Her killing followed the August 10 assassination of peasant leader and peace consultant Randall Echanis. The killings come in the wake of a June 2020 report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which independently documented killings of 208 human rights defenders, including journalists and trade unionists.
The Philippine government’s repressive apparatus has been enabled by ample supplies of U.S. weaponry, including nearly $440 million in security aid to the Philippines since 2016, the year Duterte took power, according to the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor. The Philippine military is also slated to receive a package of attack helicopters, bombs and missiles worth up to $1.5 billion. This comes on the heels of offers of firearms last year that included pistols and semi-automatic rifles for the Philippine armed forces. The helicopters are likely to be used in Duterte’s scorched earth counterinsurgency campaign on the island of Mindanao, where 450,000 people have been driven from their homes by indiscriminate aerial attacks.
Thankfully, members of Congress are taking action to end U.S. military support for the Duterte regime in the form of the Philippine Human Rights Act (PHRA), introduced by Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) and 24 colleagues late last month. The act would “suspend United States security assistance to the Philippines until such time as human rights violations by Philippine security forces cease and the responsible state forces are held accountable.”
Philippine Congressman Neri Colmenares underscored the importance of the bill: “I’m sure not a single American taxpayer would like to spend American dollars to buy bullets or guns to kill the Filipino people. This bill will save lives in the Philippines.”
The dispute over military aid to the Philippines comes in the midst of a surge in arms offers from the Trump administration, which total over $83 billion so far this year, more than the total for all of 2019. President Trump has routinely touted arms sales to repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia as good for America because of their alleged role in boosting U.S. employment, an impact that has been greatly exaggerated. Ending military aid to the Philippines would be an important first step towards reining in U.S. sales to human rights abusers more broadly.
In the midst of a pandemic, a severe economic recession and a bruising presidential race, there is a danger that crucial issues like the need to stop arming the Duterte regime will get lost in the shuffle. But Congress needs to make time to consider and pass the Philippine Human Rights Act, and the sooner the better, both for the Filipino people and to set the stage for a more effective, morally defensible arms sales policy on the part of the United States.
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