Merkley, Markey, Leahy, Cardin, Wyden, and Booker, Urge Support for Human Rights and Democracy Following Philippines Election

Merkley, Markey, Leahy, Cardin, Wyden, and Booker, Urge Support for Human Rights and Democracy Following Philippines Election

Letter to U.S. Department of State comes after May 9th election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Washington, D.C. – Today, Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA), are joined by Senators Pat Leahy (D-VT), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) on a letter to Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, urging the United States to use the aftermath results of the May 9 Philippines general election as an opportunity to reset the U.S.-Philippines relationship with a strong focus on protecting human rights and democracy. In their letter, the Senators recognize the close security partnership between the US and Philippines, and request that the Department closely review current security assistance to ensure there is no misuse of equipment and training to abet human rights violations in the Philippines.  

“The election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., even though expected, is undoubtedly jarring and traumatic to those who experienced the violence, rampant corruption, and cronyism of his father and namesake who brutally ruled the country for two decades,” wrote the Senators. “While recognizing that Marcos Jr. faces his own tax evasion charges in the United States, we must discourage the new Philippines administration from following in the steps of the Marcos Sr. dictatorship or the current president, or engaging in revisionist history. The new government can start on the right foot by recognizing the abuses of the Marcos Sr. and Duterte administrations and promising to not repeat them. As Mr. Marcos Jr.’s spokesperson said on his behalf: ‘Judge me not by my ancestors, but by my actions.’ We intend to, and we urge the Department to do the same.  

“We appreciate that the Department has approached security assistance to the Philippines with an eye toward the protection of human rights,” they continued. “This has included significantly reducing aid to the Philippines National Police, the main perpetrators of President Duterte’s horrific war on drugs, and working to apply ‘Leahy vetting’ to all armed forces responsible for gross human rights violations. It is critical that, under your leadership, these policies continue, while also pressuring the Armed Forces of the Philippines to improve its own conduct as it pertains to human rights in counter-insurgency and counterterrorism campaigns. We ask you to closely review all security assistance to the Philippines and ensure that no equipment or training is misused in the violation of the human rights of the people of the Philippines.”

The letter also noted the Senators’ serious concerns about the Philippine government’s practice of “red-tagging” both Philippine and American citizens. 

“By publicly naming and threatening people who are advocating for basic rights such as land reform, labor rights, or environmental protection, the government puts them under threat of harm and violence,” they wrote. “This practice is abhorrent; it is estimated that more than 400 political killings have occurred as a result. We encourage the United States to vociferously push back against this practice and work with the new Philippine administration to stop its use and make amends to those who have been harmed.”

Merkley, Markey, and Leahy conclude their letter reaffirming their support for the people of the Philippines—noting the long standing people-to-people relationship between the two countries—and their intent to work side-by-side with Ambassador-designate MaryKay Loss Carlson and the entire Department of State to uphold human rights, rule of law, and democracy in the Philippines.

Senators Markey, Leahy, and Durbin were banned from the Philippines by the Duterte government following their support for a provision in the Fiscal Year 2020 government spending bill that allowed the United States to ban Philippine officials involved in the detention of Senator De Lima from travelling to the United States.

Full text of the letter can be found here and follows below: 

Dear Secretary Blinken,

            As the new Administration of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. prepares to take office in the Philippines following elections on May 9, 2022, we write to express our hope that this moment can be an opportunity to reset the U.S.-Philippines relationship with a strong focus on the protection of human rights and democracy. As an electoral democracy in the Indo-Pacific region, the Philippines and the United States are natural partners, and we must work together to turn the tide of authoritarianism and flagrant human rights violations that spiked under the rule of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte and strengthen the rule of law and application of justice. While the Biden administration has highlighted concerns about challenges to democracy and the rule of law in the Philippines, including through the Summit for Democracy and our commitments there, we must do more to prioritize these issues in the U.S.–Philippines relationship.

           The election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., even though expected, is undoubtedly jarring and traumatic to those who experienced the violence, rampant corruption, and cronyism of his father and namesake who brutally ruled the country for two decades. While recognizing that Marcos Jr. faces his own tax evasion charges in the United States, we must discourage the new Philippines administration from following in the steps of the Marcos Sr. dictatorship or the current president, or engaging in revisionist history.[1] The new government can start on the right foot by recognizing the abuses of the Marcos Sr. and Duterte administrations and promising to not repeat them. As Mr. Marcos Jr.’s spokesperson said on his behalf: “Judge me not by my ancestors, but by my actions.”[2] We intend to, and we urge the Department to do the same.  

           While there were some election irregularities, including an unprecedented number of inoperable voting machines, the historic election’s results are not in doubt.[3] However, with rampant disinformation and misinformation clouding reporting and heightening tensions, the election environment did not allow for a free and honest exchange of ideas.[4] Indeed, the Philippines has become a testing ground for disinformation and misinformation efforts. As a country with one of the highest levels of social media engagement, the Philippines is especially vulnerable to manipulation of information.[5]

            Moreover, as the government of the Philippines has cracked down on press freedoms, the country has seen numerous journalists killed for trying to do their jobs. The Philippines is the seventh most dangerous country for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.[6] Maintaining a flourishing and vibrant media environment in the Philippines is critical, especially when considering the media environment of neighboring countries. In a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy on March 30, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Philippine journalist Maria Ressa highlighted how the Duterte government is “twisting the law” to target media groups, including her own, for simply doing their jobs.[7] We urge you to work with the new Marcos administration to reverse the trend of media restrictions and to provide protections for a free media, including dropping politically motivated charges against Ressa and other brave journalists. We also urge you to use the Department’s resources to support media and social media literacy and fight back against disinformation and misinformation in the Philippines.

            We appreciate that the Department has approached security assistance to the Philippines with an eye toward the protection of human rights. This has included significantly reducing aid to the Philippines National Police, the main perpetrators of President Duterte’s horrific war on drugs, and working to apply “Leahy vetting” to all armed forces responsible for gross human rights violations. It is critical that, under your leadership, these policies continue, while also pressuring the Armed Forces of the Philippines to improve its own conduct as it pertains to human rights in counter-insurgency and counterterrorism campaigns. We ask you to closely review all security assistance to the Philippines and ensure that no equipment or training is misused in the violation of the human rights of the people of the Philippines.

We also must work to help reform and strengthen the Philippines’ judicial system so that it is able to hold accountable those individuals that have violated human rights in the name of law enforcement and national security, including the more than 20,000 estimated extrajudicial killings resulting from President Duterte’s anti-drug war.[8] Human rights violations have continued, as documented in the extensive list that the State Department published in the most recent Human Rights Report.[9] The Department should not hesitate to use Magnitsky Act or other sanctions to end the culture of impunity for human rights violators in the Philippines.

            Recognizing that stabilizing the country will facilitate an end to violations committed by Philippine security forces, we want to reiterate our support for the peace process in Mindanao and encourage the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to be active partners in ensuring the success of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The long-term success of the BARMM will contribute to long-term stability in the Philippines and limit the justification for a heavy-handed security presence. We encourage you to continue to support those whom the Marawi siege displaced. We also urge the resumption of the peace process with the National Democratic Front, and encourage both sides to resolve a conflict that has resulted in an estimated 40,000 deaths.[10]

Members of the United States Senate have been banned from visiting the Philippines for calling out President Duterte’s actions, including the politically motivated imprisonment of Senator Leila de Lima.[11] She dared to shine a light on the abuses of the Duterte government and, as a result, has remained behind bars for more than five years.[12] The United States must prioritize with the new government in Manila the unconditional release of Senator de Lima and the dropping of all charges against Maria Ressa and other journalists. Those actions would be a good faith signal from the new government that it will depart from President Duterte’s reign of abuses.

            We also remain concerned about the Philippine government’s practice of “red-tagging” both Philippine and American citizens. By publicly naming and threatening people who are advocating for basic rights such as land reform, labor rights, or environmental protection, the government puts them under threat of harm and violence. This practice is abhorrent; it is estimated that more than 400 political killings have occurred as a result.[13] We encourage the United States to vociferously push back against this practice and work with the new Philippine administration to stop its use and make amends to those who have been harmed.

            We are further concerned about the ability to tackle the endemic corruption and concentration of wealth among a small elite in the Philippines. This corruption harms Filipinos across the country and makes life difficult. It also makes it harder for the United States to increase investment in the country. We urge you to not lose sight of the need to tackle corruption — and to strongly commit to doing so — as a requirement of any advancement in U.S.-Philippines relations. This will be particularly vital in setting the new administration apart from the Marcos dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s.

            The United States remains a steadfast treaty ally of the Philippines. We remain concerned that the People’s Republic of China has increasingly tried to coerce the Philippines through military and economic means, especially with regard to features in the South China Sea that the Permanent Court of Arbitration have clearly said are under Philippine sovereignty.[14]

            Above all, the people of the Philippines know that the people of the United States remain close friends and our people-to-people ties are unmatched. Millions of Americans have ties to the Philippines, making these issues especially salient. We look forward to working with Ambassador-designate MaryKay Loss Carlson and the entire Department of State to bolster respect for human rights, rule of law, and democracy in the Philippines.

                                                                        Sincerely,

###



[1] Lian Buan, Marcos Jr. continues to evade $353-million contempt judgment of US court, Rappler (Jan. 13, 2022), https://www.rappler.com/nation/bongbong-marcos-evades-millions-dollars-contempt-judgment-united-states/.

[2] Gareth Evans; Aparna Alluri, Philippine Bongbong Marcos: Judge me on actions not ancestors, BBC News (May 11, 2022), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-61381594.

[3] Sui-Lee Wee; Camille Elemia, Voters complain of broken machines and long waits, New York Times (May 9, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/09/world/asia/voters-complained-of-broken-machines-and-long-waits.html.

[4] Camille Elemia, In the Philippines, a Flourish Ecosystem for Political Lies, New York Times (May 6, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/06/business/philippines-election-disinformation.html;

Kayleen Devlin, Philippines Election; ‘Politicians hire me to spread fake stories,’ BBC News (May 8, 2022), https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-61339293.

[5] Tommy Walker, Trolls, Disinformation Make Philippine Election Coverage a Challenge, VOA News (Apr. 7, 2022), https://www.voanews.com/a/trolls-disinformation-make-philippine-election-coverage-a-challenge/6519577.html.

[6] Jesus Malabanan, reporter who covered Duterte drug war, killed in the Philippines, Committee to Protect Journalists (Dec. 9, 2021), https://cpj.org/2021/12/jesus-malabanan-reporter-who-covered-duterte-drug-war-killed-in-the-philippines/.

[7] The Assault on Freedom of Expression in Asia: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 117th Congress (2022) (statement of Ms. Maria Ressa, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate).

[8] How many people have been killed in Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, The Economist (Nov 22, 2021), https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2021/11/22/how-many-people-have-been-killed-in-rodrigo-dutertes-war-on-drugs.

[9] 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Philippines, U.S. Department of State (Apr. 12, 2022), https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/philippines/.

[10] Philippines NDF, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (May 6, 2022), https://www.hdcentre.org/activities/philippines-ndf/.

[11] Press Release, Office of Senator Edward J. Markey, Senator Markey Statement on Being Banned to Travel to the Philippines by President Rodrigo Duterte (Jan. 2, 2020), https://www.markey.senate.gov/news/press-releases/senator-markey-statement-on-being-banned-to-travel-to-the-philippines-by-president-rodrigo-duterte.

[12] Philippines: Candidates Should Pledge to Free Jailed Senator, Human Rights Watch (Feb. 22, 2022), https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/02/22/philippines-candidates-should-pledge-free-jailed-senator.

[13] 2021 Karapatan Year-end Report on the Human Rights Situation in the Philippines, Karapatan (Mar. 28, 2022), https://www.karapatan.org/2021+karapatan+year+end+report

[14] Press Statement, U.S. Department of State, Fifth Anniversary of the Arbitral Tribunal Ruling on the South China Sea (Jul. 11, 2021), https://www.state.gov/fifth-anniversary-of-the-arbitral-tribunal-ruling-on-the-south-china-sea/.