US bill seeks to stop aid to PH military, police until rights abuses addressed

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 24 2020 12:02 PM | Updated as of Sep 24 2020 01:48 PM

The Armed Forces of the Philippines conduct Arrival Honors at the Villamor Airbase on June 30, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/File

Palace calls proposal 'very wild'

MANILA (2ND UPDATE) – A new bill filed in the United States House of Representatives seeks to stop American aid to the Philippine military and police until reforms are made to address alleged human rights violations, with its author calling the Duterte administration a "brutal" regime.
 
The Philippine Human Rights Act (H.R. 8313), which seeks to “suspend the provision of security assistance to the Philippines until the Government of the Philippines has made certain reforms to the military and police forces, and for other purposes,” was introduced by Democratic Pennsylvania Rep. Susan Wild on September 17 this year, supported by 23 other Democrat legislators.
 
The official US Congress website has yet to post a copy of the bill but according to the website of Filipino-Americans advocating for its passage, the bill seeks to withhold assistance “until such time as human rights violations by Philippine security forces cease and the responsible state forces are held accountable.”
 
Introducing the bill on the floor of the US House of Representatives Wednesday, Wild referred to the recent passage of an anti-terrorism measure in the Philippines as one of the bases for pushing for the US bill.

“Today across the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal regime is using the pretext of the so-called Anti-Terrorism law to ramp up efforts targeting labor organizers, workers and political opponents. This law allows suspects to be detained by the police or military without charges for as long as 24 days and placed under surveillance for up to 90 days,” she said. 
 
“In response to these abuses, I introduced the Philippine Human Rights Act, which would block US funding for police or military assistance to the Philippines, outlining a series of basic criteria which would have to be met in order to resume such funding,” she added.

 
The criteria for lifting the restrictions set in the bill include:

  • investigating and prosecuting members of the military and police who are credibly found to violate human rights
  • withdrawing the military from domestic policy on policing
  • establishing protection of the rights for particularly-affected communities such as trade unionists, journalists, human rights defenders, indigenous peoples, small farmers, LGBTI activists and critics of the government
  • guaranteeing [a] judicial system that is capable of prosecuting and bringing to justice members of police and military who have committed human rights abuses
  • requiring the Philippine government to fully comply with any and all audits or investigations regarding the improper use of US security aid

 
The US is a long-standing Philippine defense ally.

'WILD SUGGESTION'

President Duterte's spokesperson dismissed the proposed measure as a "very wild suggestion" even as it noted that the Philippine government does not interfere in the affairs of other states.

"That's a very wild suggestion," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said during a Palace press briefing.

Roque expressed confidence that Washington, under the leadership of US President Donald Trump, would put more value in the bilateral ties between the Philippines and the US.

"Kampante po kami na ang state department naman po at administration ni President Trump dahil sa malapit na pakikipagkaibigan ng ating Presidente kay President Trump ay nakikita ang halaga ng patuloy na kooperasyon sa pagitan ng Estados Unidos at Pilipinas," Roque said.

(We are confident that the State Department and the administration of President Trump, because of the close ties of our President with him, sees the value in continuing the cooperation between the US and the Philippines.)

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo, meanwhile, noted that whether the bill hurdles the US Congress or not, the Philippines should strengthen its own defense system.

"You must remember that the President has been consistently saying we have to stand on our own," Panelo told ANC on Thursday.

"We shouldn’t be relying on the support of other countries with respect to our security in our country," he added.

Among the advocates of the bill are US-based organizations Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Malaya Movement, the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) and Kabataan Alliance.
 
“We have a crucial opportunity right now, much like Filipinos had in the '70s and '80s under Marcos martial law, to apply more international pressure on the Duterte regime, cut military assistance regime that is going to support the deaths of our fellow Filipinos, and hold those responsible for so much death and suffering accountable,” Nicanora Montenegro of the Malaya Movement said in an online press conference Thursday morning (Manila time).
 
She also cited the rising death toll in the drug war as well as the armed forces’ alleged terrorizing of indigenous peoples in the countryside. 

The Duterte administration has parried criticism of its bloody campaign against illegal drugs, saying the thousands of drug suspects slain in police operations had resisted violently, prompting police to draw their guns in self-defense. 

“We have seen too many human rights activists killed in the past 4 years of his administration and it seems to be picking up speed. Tama na! (Enough!). President Duterte’s tyrannical rule disregards freedom and lives of people in the Philippines but even if we are here in the US, we must care about this because we are aiding and abetting the tyrant itself,” Montenegro said, referring to millions of dollars sent as aid to the Philippines.
 
By the group’s count, the US government's security aid for the Philippines has reached $550 million dollars since 2006. 
 
During the same period, advocates said numerous cases of human rights violations have been recorded, including an attempted assassination on a Chinese-American human rights defender in Ifugao, a mountainous area in northern Philippines.
 
Brandon Lee accused the 54th infantry battalion of shooting him in his house on August 6, 2019, after he was red-tagged on social media and in flyers as allegedly among “rebel supporters.” 

Married to a Filipina, Lee moved to Ifugao in 2010 to work as a paralegal for the Cordillera Human Rights Alliance. 
 
He said he was subjected to surveillance several times and received death threats, which ended in his shooting.
 
He has since returned to California to recover, paralyzed from the chest down.
 
Speaking about the importance of getting the bill passed, he said this “will of course pressure the military and police to do their jobs responsibly, to act according to human rights.”
 
Lee added that Facebook's recent decision to take down pages traced to the Philippine military and police, which had been engaged in "inauthentic behavior," should be an additional reason for the US to stop security assistance to the Philippines.

Philippine authorities have denied running these pages but Facebook said they were able to tie them to Philippine military and police personalities despite attempts to conceal their identity.
 
The pages allegedly focused on the anti-terrorism bill; criticism of communism, youth activists and the opposition; and criticism of the Communist Party of the Philippines, New People’s Army and the National Democratic Front.
 
The bill is not the first time US legislators attempted to impose measures to promote human rights in the Philippines.
 
Last year, the US Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law the 2020 budget which included a provision authorizing the US secretary of state to stop the entry into American soil of those behind Sen. Leila de Lima’s detention.

This year, the US Senate passed a separate resolution calling for the immediate release of De Lima, a staunch Duterte critic now detained for alleged drug involvement, and for Trump to impose Magnitsky sanctions on Philippine government officials behind her arrest and detention.
 
The Global Magnitsky Act authorizes the US government to sanction those who it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the US.

Wild said the message that they wish to send in sponsoring the Philippine Human Rights Act is strong: “Let us make clear that the United States will not participate in the repression. Let us stand with the people of the Philippines.” 
 
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a former PNP chief, said US lawmakers were "within their rights to file any legislative measure under any circumstances."

"If adopted and approved, the said bill— HR 8313— will not only be our loss but theirs as well, considering that a major part of the security assistance being extended to the Philippines is used to combat terrorism, which knows no borders and timing. And they know that for a fact," he said in a statement.

— with reports from Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News