By Lance Arevada

PHOTO: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Ten senators from the United States called on US President Joe Biden’s administration to condemn a “continuing pattern” of human rights violations committed by the Philippine government, raising the possibility of imposing sanctions and reviewing security assistance and arms sales to the Philippines.

In a letter to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on July 26, the Democratic senators, led by Senator Edward Markey, pressed Biden to “stand with the people of the Philippines as they continue to fight for their universal human rights.” 

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

The legislators noted that maintaining the relationship between the two countries requires upholding shared values such as protecting human rights, which includes the freedom of speech and the press, and a dynamic form of democratic governance.

“Yet, 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,” they said.

The senators mentioned how President Duterte continued to attack the press, civil society groups, and human rights defenders — citing the enactment of the controversial Anti-Terrorism Law, the shutdown of ABS-CBN, and the issue of red-tagging among community pantry organizers and health workers.

They also addressed Duterte’s persistent targeting of its staunch critic, Senator Leila De Lima, which remains in detention over allegations of drug charges, as well as the criminal and libel cases filed against Rappler CEO and journalist Maria Ressa. These two high-profile cases were repeatedly raised to the US State Department over the years.

Senator Markey, also a vocal critic of the Duterte administration, has been previously barred from entering the country along with Senators Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy for endorsing a measure that bans all Filipino officials who played a role in jailing Senator De Lima to enter the US which has since been approved.

Durbin and Leahy were also signatories of the said letter, together with US Senators Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Ben Cardin, Ron Wyden, Bob Casey, Cory Booker, and Jeffrey A. Merkley.

‘Sanctions vs. Duterte gov’t raised’

Furthermore, the American senators have pressed State Secretary Blinken on the actions taken by his department to address the systemic human rights violations in the Philippines, and if this has been discussed with Philippine representatives.

“What actions has the State Department taken under your leadership to raise and respond to the Philippine government's systemic human rights violations including the coordinated push to implement the Anti-Terrorism Act?” they said.

They also asked if sanctions are being considered against Filipino officials involved in the mentioned human rights violations and the drug war killings under the Global Magnitsky Act, and if there are officials that are already banned in the United States in relation to the mentioned measure endorsed by Markey.

In addition, the legislators inquired if the Biden administration had already pressed President Duterte to end the detention of De Lima and drop the charges against Ressa. They also asked if Biden has raised the issue of red-tagging as “an unacceptable practice in violation of international human rights.”

While in consideration of the raised human rights abuses, the senators also questioned if these violations have been weighed on the ongoing evaluation of the security assistance and arms sales of the United States to the Philippines. 

“What steps has the administration taken to utilize this as leverage to encourage the Philippines to improve its human rights record?” they added.

The letter comes as the Duterte government aborted its plans to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States after meeting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on July 29.

The supposed plan of abrogating the agreement was borne out of Duterte’s anger over the cancellation of Senator Bato Dela Rosa’s US visa, who is also considered as the architect of the President’s war on drugs, as well as his retaliation on the measure sponsored by US Senator Markey, Leahy, and Durbin.