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Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines

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Senate Democrats on Monday called on the Biden administration to condemn human rights violations reported in the Philippines as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s five-year war on drugs.

In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, nearly a dozen Democratic senators raised concern about U.S. military support to the Philippines and called on the administration to clarify its policy toward the South Asian country and Duterte’s crackdown on opposition politicians and journalists. 

“We write to express our continued concern about the human rights situation in the Philippines, and seek to better understand the Biden administration’s strategy for addressing the Duterte government’s continuing pattern of human rights violations,” the senators wrote. 

“…Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has waged a multi-year extrajudicial, violent, and inhumane ‘war on drugs’ that has devastated communities, and has been used as justification to target the independent press, political opponents, human rights advocates, and compromise judicial due process.”

The letter was led by Sen. Ed Markey (Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, and joined by 10 other Democratic senators.

Duterte, who’s six-year presidential term is set to end in 2022, has come under intense international scrutiny and criticism for his anti-drug campaign over allegations of extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests, including staging drug violations or planting evidence.

Amnesty International wrote in a 2019 report that the Philippine government had acknowledged at least 6,600 police killings, but it suggested that the actual number is far higher. 

Last month, the top prosecutor for the International Criminal Court said there’s reasonable basis to believe “the crime against humanity of murder” took place between 2016 and 2019 under Duterte’s campaign.

The Philippines is a key U.S. partner in Southeast Asia, sharing a mutual defense treaty and as a strategic ally amid the tense competition with a rising China, on top of being an important trading partner and sharing deep, people-to-people ties. 

The senators, however, raise in their letter concern over U.S. security assistance to the Philippine National Police, as well as weapon and military aircraft sales to the Philippine military. 

“How has the administration weighed the Duterte government’s pervasive human rights abuses when evaluating sales of weapons and military aircraft to the Philippine military? What steps has the administration taken to utilize these sales as leverage to encourage the Philippines to improve its human rights record?” they ask. 

They also highlight the four-year detention of Philippine Sen. Leila de Lima, a critic of Duterte who was arrested on drug charges. Her jailing has been criticized by the United Nations as arbitrary. 

The Democrats also raised the case of journalist Maria Ressa, who was arrested and convicted in June of last year on cyber libel charges and faces up to six years in prison. The senators criticize the charges against her as politically motivated and an effort by the Duterte government to shut down opposition voices and investigative journalism into human rights violations stemming from his war on drugs.

“These cases lay bare the systemic and coordinated attempts to silence journalists, political opposition, and human rights defenders,” they wrote. 

“The State Department should condemn the aforementioned abuses at the highest levels in our diplomatic engagements with Philippine government representatives, as well as publicly.”

The lawmakers further call on Blinken to answer questions related to what concrete steps the administration has taken to raise and respond to apparent human rights violations and whether the administration is considering sanctions of human rights violators and corrupt government officials. 

In addition to Markey, the letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Ben Cardin (Md.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Chris Van Hollen (Md.).

Tags Antony Blinken Ben Cardin Bob Casey Chris Van Hollen Cory Booker Dick Durbin Ed Markey Elizabeth Warren Extrajudicial killing Human rights abuses Jeff Merkley Patrick Leahy Philippine Drug War Philippines Presidency of Rodrigo Duterte Rodrigo Duterte Ron Wyden Sherrod Brown the Philippines
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