Congress should cut military aid to the Philippines

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In legislation introduced this week, Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) and 10 original co-sponsors make a persuasive case for cutting off U.S. military aid and arms sales to the Duterte regime in the Philippines based on its abysmal human rights record. The bill – the Philippine Human Rights Act – would cut support for the Philippine police and military until the regime investigates and prosecutes members of the military and police forces who have violated human rights, gets the military out of domestic politics and establishes much-needed protections of the rights of trade unionists, journalists, human rights defenders, indigenous persons, small farmers, LGBTI activists and critics of the government. These measures are long overdue.

In his trip to Europe this week, President Biden portrayed the current world situation as a battle between “democracies and autocracies,” a characterization that may seem logical on its face but that harbors the danger of sparking a new Cold War and undermining needed cooperation among all nations on common challenges such as pandemics, climate change, poverty and inequality. 

In addition, by targeting autocracies, the president fails to focus on nations that are nominally democratic but engage in reckless and repressive behavior. Such is the case with the Duterte regime in the Philippines. Ever since his election in 2016, the Philippine president has engaged in a reign of terror that has left tens of thousands dead while cracking down on human rights defenders and other groups working for a fairer, more democratic nation.

Based on its conduct over the past five years, the Duterte regime should not be eligible for U.S. arms sales and military aid. As calculated by the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor, the United States has offered the Philippines over $2.4 billion in weaponry since Duterte took power in 2016, including everything from firearms to attack helicopters. As noted in the preamble of the Philippine Human Rights Act and documented by the Philippines-based human rights monitoring group Karapatan and the report of the Independent International Commission of Investigation Into Human Rights Violations in the Philippines, the Duterte regime has engaged in the following abuses since taking power: 376 extrajudicial political killings, 488 attempted politically motivated killings, 222 incidents of torture, 3,600 illegal arrests, over 100,000 cases of threats and harassment against regime critics and the creation of nearly half a million internal refugees in its brutal and indiscriminate counter-terror campaign. 

The religious community has not been exempt from Duterte’s repression. Catholic bishops, priests, pastors and laity have been threatened, intimidated, harassed and murdered for speaking out against extra-judicial killings and the regime’s misguided and vicious “war on drugs,” which has resulted in the deaths and imprisonment of thousands of innocent people. 

Workers’ organizations have also been targeted by the regime, as have elected officials who dare to criticize Duterte’s rule. In all, more than 30 labor leaders and 25 mayors and vice mayors have been assassinated since Duterte took office.

Last but not least, the international non-governmental watchdog Global Witness has declared the Philippines to be the deadliest country in the world for defenders of human rights, the environment and natural resources, with 30 environmentalists, 54 indigenous people and 207 farmers and peasants extrajudicially killed under Duterte’s rule. 

Duterte’s repression shows no signs of slowing down. In March the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) carried out a series of joint operations across the Calabarzon region that led to the massacre of nine activists and the arrest of six others. The victims were members of progressive organizations that advocated on issues of labor, land and indigenous rights, environmental protections and housing rights for the urban poor.

Advocates of carrying on business as usual in U.S.-Philippine relations point to the alleged value of the Duterte regime as an ally against China. As the State Department put it in a letter to Rep. Wild, “the alliance with the Philippines is foundational to the U.S. role in the Indo-Pacific, and the relationship is founded on shared strategic interest.” 

This tradeoff of human rights for purportedly more important strategic concerns is misguided for several reasons.

First, the Duterte regime is far from a reliable partner, playing the U.S. against China and China against the U.S., as it sees fit. 

Second, a military-first approach to China involving the basing of U.S. forces in the Philippines ignores the fact that the challenge posed by China is more diplomatic and economic than military, and that doubling down on military approaches is only likely to spark a new cold war that could eventually lead to a military confrontation between nuclear-armed powers, which needs to be avoided at all costs. 

Finally, ignoring human rights in the Philippines sends a signal to dictators, autocrats and tyrants worldwide that the United States does not take its commitment to human rights seriously, giving a green light to brutal and repressive conduct.

If the Biden administration fails to use all the leverage at its disposal to stop Duterte’s repression in the Philippines, it will be up to Congress to act by passing the Philippine Human Rights Act into law. Passage will help the Filipino people and lead to a more humane and effective foreign policy on the part of the United States.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.

Tags Extrajudicial killing Joe Biden Philippine Drug War Politics of the Philippines Presidency of Rodrigo Duterte Rodrigo Duterte Susan Wild the Philippines
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