“According to the White House, both leaders will use this meeting ‘to ensure respect for human rights.’ This will be possible only if President Biden and President Marcos engage in candid discussions about the concerning human rights shortcomings of their governments,” said Amnesty International USA’s Asia Advocacy Director Carolyn Nash.
Politically motivated prosecutions: Senator Leila de Lima & Maria Ressa
The continued use of politically motivated prosecutions and lawsuits to stifle dissent in the Philippines undermines free speech, independent media, and political and civil rights. Amnesty International urges President Biden to raise the continued detention of former Senator Leila de Lima on fabricated charges, as well as the political persecution of Nobel laureate Maria Ressa.
“President Biden must express the US government’s outrage that former Senator Leila de Lima remains in arbitrary detention and that the cases against Maria Ressa continue. De Lima must be released immediately and unconditionally and all the charges against Maria Ressa dropped,” said Andrew Fandino, Individuals at Risk Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA.
Prisoner of conscience and former Senator Leila de Lima has spent more than six years in detention over politically motivated, drug-related charges, despite the retraction of testimonies by key witnesses. In August 2022, the Office of the Ombudsman dismissed a separate bribery case against her. And in October 2022 Senator de Lima survived a hostage taking incident inside her detention cell at the Philippine National Police Custodial Center when an armed detainee attempted to escape.
In July 2022, the Court of Appeals upheld the conviction for cyber libel against Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. A second appeal was rejected in October. The case against the two, respectively the founder and a former researcher of independent media outlet Rappler, relates to a 2012 article alleging links between a businessman and drugs/human trafficking. They face over six years in prison if their final appeal before the Supreme Court is unsuccessful. Several other cases against Maria Ressa remained pending at year end. An order to close Rappler remains under appeal.
In January 2023, the Court of Tax Appeals acquitted Maria Ressa and Rappler of four counts of tax evasion.
Repression of dissent: ‘Red-tagging’
Following the breakdown of peace talks between the Philippine government and the Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front-New People’s Army, a crackdown against groups and individuals suspected of being sympathetic to the leftist movement has escalated.
“Human rights defenders and political activists have been subjected to ‘red-tagging’ by government authorities – a practice that has had a chilling effect on civil society and political freedom,” said Nash.
Amnesty International Philippines, as well as the US Department of State in its annual human rights report, have expressed concern that schools and students from Lumad communities, a group of Indigenous ethnic communities in Mindanao, have also been subject to ‘red-tagging’. This often results “in raids by the security forces, illegal arrests, and forced closure of community schools,” according to the US report.
“The US government is well aware that the practice of ‘red-tagging’ is escalating under President Marcos,” Nash said. “President Biden cannot ignore the evidence provided by his own State Department of this ongoing abuse of institutional power to intimidate and silence dissent. It cannot be a crime to hold and express political views. He must call on President Marcos to end ‘red-tagging’ and to allow political expression and civil society to thrive.”
Killing of human rights defenders and journalists
The Philippines continues to be one of the deadliest countries in the world for human rights defenders and journalists. According to Front Line Defenders, 10 human rights defenders were killed in 2022, and according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, four journalists were killed in the Philippines in 2022. Human rights defenders in the Philippines regularly face intimidation, death threats, judicial harassment, smear campaigns, including ‘red-tagging’, arbitrary detention, assault, and killings. Those human rights defenders who work on land rights issues and the environment are particularly at risk.
“Rarely do killings of human rights defenders and journalists result in arrests, let alone prosecutions, leading to a climate of impunity with few perpetrators ever being brought to justice,” Fandino said. “President Biden must urge President Marcos to conduct effective, thorough, independent and impartial investigations into the killings of human rights defenders and journalists, to identifying all the perpetrators involved, including the intellectual authors, and to bring them to justice in fair trials.”
Human rights risks in rural communities
Linked to the government’s ongoing counter-insurgency efforts, rural communities, including Indigenous communities, are facing particular risks in the Philippines. Increased military presence in rural areas serves as a form of political intimidation, endangering the lives of Indigenous peoples and hindering the activities of civil society organizations and media outlets.
“President Biden should make clear to President Marcos that no military assistance can be used to carry out human rights violations,” said Nash. “President Biden should be especially concerned that US-trained military personnel equipped with US-made weapons are patrolling rural communities, intimidating civilians, and silencing civil society organizations. He should ensure that the US has a diplomatic presence prioritizing the rights of civilians in every place it has a military presence supporting US security interests.”
In the US Department of State’s annual human rights report, the United States government noted that “in some rural areas, the central government continued a long-standing practice of supporting and arming civilian militias, which often received minimal training and were poorly monitored and regulated. Some political families and clan leaders, particularly in Mindanao, maintained private militias. Civilian control over some security forces was not fully effective. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.”
It further noted, “Armed groups frequently recruited from Indigenous populations. Indigenous persons’ lands were also often the site of armed encounters related to resource extraction or intertribal disputes, which sometimes resulted in displacement or killings.” Some rural NGOs, the report noted, “complained of routine surveillance and harassment.”
“President Biden must emphasize the United States’ commitment not only to working with President Marcos’ administration but also to supporting the rights and freedoms of the people of the Philippines,” Nash said.
Ongoing killings, lack of accountability for crimes in the “war on drugs”
Seven years since the start of the so-called “war on drugs” in the Philippines, drug-related killings persist and accountability efforts for thousands of victims across the country have foundered. Although the Marcos administration has been in power for ten months now, it has failed to take adequate steps towards justice and has opposed international forms of accountability.
“We call on President Biden to urge the Philippines government to end extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detention and other violations committed in the name of the ‘war on drugs’ once and for all and deliver full justice for families of victims desperate for closure for their loved ones,” said Butch Olano, Head of Amnesty Philippines.
“The US government knows that accountability for crimes under former President Duterte is sorely lacking, despite insistence to the contrary by Marcos. Justice must be a requirement for stronger ties between the two countries.”
Access to Humanitarian Protection:
“President Marcos similarly has a responsibility to hold President Biden accountable for the human rights failures of the United States,” said Olano. “Given high levels of migration from the Philippines, President Marcos is uniquely placed to press President Biden on the abhorrent and cruel immigration policies that have set a devastating example to the rest of the world.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Title 42 has been abused to expel hundreds of thousands of individuals and families arriving at U.S. borders to exercise their human right to seek asylum. Title 42 harms and punishes asylum-seekers in an attempt to deter them from exercising their human right to seek asylum, and disproportionately impacts Black, Brown, and Indigenous asylum seekers.
The Philippine government should press the Biden Administration to immediately restore access to asylum at the border, and set a goal of resettling 200,000 refugees in fiscal year 2023, said Olano.
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