Philippines-US relations

Human rights still a factor in PH-US ties, warns American senator

Sofia Tomacruz

AMERICAN LAWMAKER. US Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois.

Durbin's website

'The United States recognizes the importance of cooperation with the Philippines to bolster security in the region, but it will not be at the exclusion of the country’s human rights record,' says US Senator Richard Durbin

United States Senator Richard Durbin reminded Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez that the country’s human rights record will not be sidelined in discussions on the two countries’ security cooperation. 

In a summary of the virtual meeting held between the officials on Tuesday, September 28, US time, Durbin’s office said the senator raised several human rights concerns seen under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.

These include thousands of extrajudicial killings, the detention of opposition senator Leila de Lima, and the harassment of journalists, including Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa.

“I reassured Philippines Foreign Minister Locsin and Ambassador Romualdez that the United States recognizes the importance of cooperation with the Philippines to bolster security in the region, but it will not be at the exclusion of the country’s human rights record,” Durbin said.

Durbin told Locsin and Romualdez that Filipinos from his home state of Illinois continue to “remain disturbed by President Duterte’s actions.”

Durbin, who is the No. 2 Democrat in the US Senate and chair of the chamber’s judiciary committee, has led several efforts by American lawmakers to exact accountability from Philippine officials accused of extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, violation of De Lima’s human rights, and involvement in the crackdown on press freedom.

Last July, Durbin, along with other Senate Democrats, wrote to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to express their concern on the human rights situation in the Philippines and request for the Biden administration’s strategy for addressing violations seen under the Duterte government. 

In the letter, the Senate Democrats said the State Department should raise human rights abuses at the highest levels in its diplomatic engagements with the Philippines and in public.

The nearly one dozen lawmakers who signed the letter had expressed concern over US security assistance to the Philippine National Police as well as defense sales to the Philippine military. Manila, which is Washington’s oldest ally in the region, is among its key security partners.

Durbin’s meeting with Locsin and Romualdez came weeks after Philippine officials’ visit to Washington, DC, where meetings were held with Blinken, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and other top officials of the Biden administration. 

During the trip, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana renewed his call for a review of the two countries’ Mutual Defense Treaty and for US support for the Philippine military’s modernization program that would go beyond handing over “Vietnam-era” hardware. (READ: EDCA implementation a missing piece in PH-US defense ties – expert)

In January 2020, Durbin was among the senators who passed a resolution calling for the release of De Lima and seeking sanctions against Philippine officials linked to the Philippine senator’s detention, as well as extrajudicial killings in the country.

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The measure, which angered Duterte, also invoked the Global Magnitsky Act, an American law that gives the US executive branch the power to impose visa and travel restrictions as well as financial sanctions on human rights violators anywhere in the world.

Bilateral ties between the Philippines and the US have been strained under Duterte, as the firebrand leader has repeatedly lashed out at Washington for “interfering” in his controversial drug war.

Relations hit a low after Duterte terminated the Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries in February 2020. But the President reversed his decision and the key military pact was restored last July. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.