MANILA — A United States senator who was previously barred from entering the Philippines for taking steps in support of detained Senator Leila de Lima is now occupying key positions in the US Senate and has vowed continued support for the detained Philippine lawmaker.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin is now the Senate Majority Whip, the third-highest ranking member of the majority party in the US Senate.
He will also head the powerful Senate Judiciary committee.
Responding to De Lima’s January 26 tweet congratulating him, Durbin on Saturday thanked De Lima while assuring her of his continued support.
“And as the four year anniversary of your unjust & politically-motivated arrest approaches, I want to assure you that I will never stop supporting your fight for human rights in the Philippines,” he said in a tweet.
Durbin is among several US senators who have called for De Lima’s release.
He, along with fellow-US Senator Patrick Leahy, were responsible for including a provision in the Senate appropriations commitee report, which accompanied the 2020 US budget bill, directing the US Secretary of State to apply the law banning human rights violators from entering American soil to those behind De Lima’s “wrongful imprisonment.”
That law, called the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, authorizes the US government to sanction those whom it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the US.
Durbin was also among 5 US senators who worked on the passage of a Senate resolution in January 2020 condemning De Lima’s continued detention, calling for her release and urging then-President Donald Trump to impose Magnitsky sanctions on De Lima’s jailers.
The same resolution also called for dropping of charges against Manila-based journalist and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa.
Malacañang, in response, banned both Senators Durbin and Leahy from entering the Philippines, denouncing the US lawmakers’ “intervention” in domestic affairs.
The Philippine government has always insisted there is basis to detain De Lima over allegations she ran the illegal drug trade in the New Bilibid Prisons.
De Lima was arrested in February 2017 initially charged with illegal drug trading but Department of Justice prosecutors spent months amending the information to conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading despite De Lima’s objection.
After nearly 4 years in detention, prosecutors finished presenting evidence in 2 of her 3 drugs cases, which her defense team said were not even able to prove if there was indeed an illegal drug trade or the senator’s involvement. They noted that prosecutors could not even identify what type of illegal drugs were involved nor produce the drugs itself.
She has moved to junk the 2 cases on the basis of insufficiency of evidence. The presentation of evidence in the third case is on-going.
NOT JUST DURBIN
But it’s not just Durbin who will be occupying a powerful position.
Senator Leahy from Vermont will serve as the US Senate president pro tempore, the second highest position in the US Senate.
Traditionally given to the longest-serving US senator, the president pro tempore presides over Senate sessions in the absence of the US vice president, who only votes to break a tie.
The rise of Durbin and Leahy in the US Senate structure came after Democrats took control of the US Senate, clinching 50 seats to equal those currently occupied by Republicans.
And since the vice president is considered the tie breaker, Democrats are now in charge of the US Senate.
RISE OF DEMOCRATS AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR PH HUMAN RIGHTS
The rise of the Democrats — maintaining control of the US House of Representatives and the election of Joe Biden as the new US president — has raised optimism among rights defenders that the US will exert pressure on the Philippine government to address human rights concerns.
De Lima, herself, said in a statement in December that she expects Biden to be “less tolerant of human rights violators” compared to Trump.
But in an online forum Friday, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard cautioned against expecting radical changes in the human rights situation in the Philippines.
“I share the present optimism of many of us in terms of the Biden administration presenting opportunities for better human rights protection. I mean, clearly, in terms of the liberal values that the Democratic Party is known to have made its own. It will continue to do so and it's gonna do so even more because of what happened under the Trump administration,” she said as she also called for De Lima’s release and the dropping of charges against Ressa.
“I think the point I was making was more in, from a longer-term standpoint, which is, you know, how far will that commitment unravel and how far will it go when confronted with your government responses which may be to say, ‘if you're pushing too much, we will seek China's friendship,’ which they are already doing anyway. So within that context, I am concerned that human rights is not gonna be an asset for either one of the parties and could be the victim of those,” she said.
Callamard explained that the competition between China and the US may not likely favor human rights protection in the country.
“Why, because on one hand, the US may be prepared to tone down its scrutiny over the human rights record of the country, so as to keep the Philippines within its sphere of influence, while China which has never really cared about the human rights record of any country, may in fact embolden the government’s human rights violation for the same purpose which is to bring the Philippines within its own sphere of influence and in that game. The Human Rights sectors, human rights victims are likely to suffer far more,” she said.
The Philippine government has shrugged off international criticism of its human rights record despite various international bodies calling attention to it.
In December, the International Criminal Court Office of the Prosecutor released a report saying there is “reasonable basis” to believe that crimes against humanity took place in the country from July 1, 2016 when President Duterte took office until March 16, 2019, when the Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC took effect.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights meanwhile documented widespread human rights violations and persistent impunity in the Philippines.
But in the same forum Friday, no less than Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called for “prudence and proper restraint” in dealing with the domestic concerns of the US and the Philippines, even as he welcomed a new era of PH-US relations.
“We are hopeful that prudence and proper restraint will be exercised in dealing with other country’s domestic affairs. American leaders must note that the foundation of our alliance is our shared commitment for the preservation of democracy and protection of human rights and that the Philippines has never reneged from such commitment,” he said.
Lorenzana was hopeful that the appointment of former US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim to the US State Department could only mean well for the country as he has a “deeper understanding of the Philippines.”