11 Democrat senators press Biden on Duterte's human rights record

Published July 30, 2021, 12:58 AM

by Roy Mabasa

Eleven United States Senate Democrats led by Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, have called the attention of the Biden administration over their concerns about the human rights situation in the Philippines under the Duterte administration.

US Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.) (Ed Markey official website)

Markey, along with Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeffrey A. Merkley (D-Ore.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Richard J Durbin (D-Ill.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) wrote a letter to State Secretary Antony J. Blinken to clarify the Biden administration’s strategy for addressing the Duterte government’s pattern of human rights violations.

In the letter, the senators urged the Biden administration “to stand with the people of the Philippines as they continue to fight for their universal human rights.”

The letter, which was sent to Blinken on July 26, 2021, came at a time when US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III is embarking on a three-country swing in Southeast Asia that includes a visit to the Philippines and a meeting with President Duterte.

“Maintaining a bilateral relationship such as this requires upholding shared values— the protection of human rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and vibrant democratic governance,” the US lawmakers wrote in their letter to Blinken.

The 11 Democrat senators claimed that 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 cited that the United Nations Human Rights Council estimates tens of thousands of people have lost their lives to Duterte’s so-called war on drugs. Philippine authorities place the death toll on the war on drugs to more than 6,000 people.

“Allegations of extrajudicial police misconduct — including collaboration with vigilantes, fabricated reports, and planted evidence — are rampant. Opposition figures, journalists, and activists critical of the killing campaign frequently find themselves targeted by the Duterte government,” they said.

The US lawmakers specifically asked Blinken to respond to a series of questions related to the administration’s policies towards the Philippines and the Duterte government, including:

  • Whether the State Department has raised the Duterte government’s systemic human rights abuses in discussions with representatives of the Philippine government;
  • Whether the Biden administration is considering any sanctions against Philippine government officials related to the systemic human rights abuses;
  • Whether the Biden administration has pressed the Philippine government to end the unjust detention of Senator Leila De Lima, who has been detained for four years in a politically motivated case related to her criticisms of the Duterte government;
  • Whether the Biden administration has pressed the Philippine government to drop its politically motivated cases against journalist Maria Ressa;
  • Whether the Biden administration has communicated its concerns about the Philippine government’s practice of “red-tagging’ opposition figures, journalists, and activists who criticize the government;
  • And, how the Biden administration is taking into consideration the Philippine government’s systemic human rights abuses as it reviews U.S. security assistance and arms sales to the Philippines.

In 2019, President Duterte declared as persona non grata Senators Markey, Leahy, and Durbin for supporting a provision in the US Fiscal Year 2020 government spending bill that allowed the United States to ban Philippine officials involved in the detention of Senator Leila De Lima from traveling to the United States.