Philippines-US relations

US senators to Pompeo: Abuses under Duterte should not go unchallenged

Sofia Tomacruz
US senators to Pompeo: Abuses under Duterte should not go unchallenged

Thousands of protesters from various groups troop to the University of the Philppines in Quezon City for SONagKAISA to protest ahead of President Rodrigo Duterte's State of the Nation Address on July 27, 2020. Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

Photo by Angie de Silva/Rappler

American lawmakers say the US government should not provide 'unquestioned assistance' to its ally in the region

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, US senators raised concerns over the escalation of crackdown on media, critics, and activists in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, citing the shutdown of media giant ABS-CBN and the recent guilty verdict of Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa.  

Senators Edward Markey, Richard Durbin, Jeffrey Merkley, Patrick Leahy, and Benjamin Cardin flagged events under the Duterte administration that established a “pattern of gross violations of human rights” and “crackdown on critics, journalists, and human rights defenders with impunity.” 

The American lawmakers said that while the Philippines was an important ally of the US, abuses should not go unchallenged. The lawmakers pressed the State Department to clarify Washington’s Philippine policy. 

“The Philippines is an important ally of the United States. But alliance considerations cannot be grounds for silence on unquestioned assistance to the Philippines in light of the pattern of gross violations of human rights by the Duterte government, particularly its counter narcotics operations,” the lawmakers said in their letter on Thursday, July 30 (Manila time). 

“The Duterte government has escalated its crackdown on critics, journalists, and human rights defenders with impunity, as several high-profile abuses demonstrate,” they added. 

What they’re saying

The lawmakers raised several human rights and press freedom developments in the Philippines as they pressed Pompeo to provide them “a better understanding of the Trump administration’s strategy for countering serious, ongoing abuses.” 

Bilateral ties between the Philippines and US have been strained under Duterte, as the firebrand leader repeatedly lashed out at Washington for “interfering” in his controversial drug war. Relations hit a low after Duterte terminated a key military pact between the two countries earlier in February, a move that eventually did not push through as he suspended its abrogation in June. 

Despite this, President Rodrigo Duterte and US President Donald Trump – viewed as Duterte of the West – seem to like each other, with Trump even once praising the Philippine strongman for his deadly drug war.  

Among the concerns the senators raised included recent findings from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that sounded the alarm on the “relentless and systematic assault” of Filipinos’ basic rights seen under Duterte’s drug war. The report had also warned of the further spiraling of human rights brought about by Duterte’s heavy handed response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The senators also spoke out on the continued detention of opposition Senator Leila de Lima. 

Moreover, they drew attention to Duterte officials’ moves to silence media critical of the administration’s policies.

In particular, the senators cited Philippine lawmakers’ shutdown of broadcast giant ABS-CBN and a recent State Department statement that acknowledged the “travesty of justice” in Ressa’s guilty cyber-liber verdict, but fell short as it “failed to call out the systematic assault against press freedom that Philippine authorities are carrying out.” 

(READ: After verdict on Maria Ressa, world puts Duterte on trial)

Aside from this, the lawmakers expressed concern over the Anti-Terror Act that Duterte signed into law last July 3, as they feared the measure would enable more rights violations “while making it easier for the government to criminalize journalism and dissent.” 

“Given the impunity with which the Duterte government has operated, and tis recorded of targeting critics and opposition figures, expanded counterterrorism powers such as those in the Anti-Terrorism Act would pose a human rights threat even if on their face they comport with global standards,” they said. 

What they expect

The 5 senators questioned why the Trump administration has “seemingly not utilized” its authority granted by Congress to sanction officials. 

Markey, Durbin, and Leahy were among lawmakers who took action earlier this year to hold accountable Philippine officials linked to human rights violations and De Lima’s detention. (READ: What we know so far: Proposed U.S. sanctions vs PH officials in drug war)

The lawmakers said the Trump administration has not applied Global Magnitsky sanctions invoked in an earlier resolution adopted by the Senate nor were they aware of any word from the State Department denouncing Duterte’s entry ban against the 3 senators

“We urge you to make clear that the United States will ignore neither the exploitation of this law nor the ongoing human rights violations by the Duterte government,” they said. 

The lawmakers then asked Pompeo to answer 7 key questions on the US’ policy towards the Philippines: 

  • How does the State Department plan to respond to the Philippine government’s systematic human rights violations, including restrictions on free expression?
  • Have you expressed concerns to the Duterte government about the potential abuse of authorities granted to it by the Anti-Terrorism Act? Which sections of the legislation do you believe present the greatest risk from a human rights perspective?
  • Given the Duterte government’s worsening human rights record, do you intend to continue providing military assistance and licensing commercial arms sales to the Philippines? Have you expressed to the Duterte government that it needs to address human rights abuses in order to continue to receive military equipment from the United States?
  • In addition to being a citizen of the Philippines, Maria Ressa is a US citizen. Although she is currently free on bail, we are concerned that she could be imprisoned at any time. Has the Trump administration conveyed to the Philippine government the consequences for US-Philippine relations if she is detained? 
  • Has the Trump administration conveyed to the Philippine government the consequences for U.S.-Philippines relations if Maria Ressa is detained?
  • Has the Philippine government reversed new restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic on Senator Leila De Lima’s ability to communicate and meet with visitors including her staff? 
  • Are you continuing to raise Senator De Lima’s illegitimate detention with Philippine government counterparts?

“We value the partnership between the United States and the Philippines, but we must stand up against the brutal tactics of the Duterte government, particularly when they are used against American citizens,” the senators said. –

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