WASHINGTON — With a backdrop of 3,000 white ‘tsinelas’—or flip flops—lying in rows on the National Mall to symbolize the 30,000 Filipino lives lost under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s five-year war on drugs, dozens of activists and Filipino community members Thursday rallied to urge Congress to pass legislation ending U.S. support of the Philippine government’s security forces.
U.S. assistance has totaled more than $2.1 billion since Duterte took office in 2016, including arms sales and aid, according to the legislation.
The Duterte regime has led a violent crackdown on environmental activists, human rights defenders, religious leaders, trade unionists and journalists under the mandate of its war on drugs, which has resulted in 376 documented extrajudicial political killings and more than 25 assassinations of elected officials, according to a 2019 report from Human Rights Watch.
The Philippine Human Rights Act—introduced earlier this year by Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa.,—would end U.S. support to the country’s security forces until the Duterte government commits to human rights goals.
“Why would the U.S. keep supporting a regime that’s clearly corrupt?” asked Jo Quiambao, an educational officer for GABRIELA DC—a Filipino women’s rights organization—and a speaker at the rally. “We don’t want our money to go into corrupt hands.”
While human rights violations in the Philippines are not unique to the current regime, the country has seen a dramatic escalation of the number of killings, tortures and forced disappearances under Duterte’s rule, said Yves Nibungco, chairman of the pro-democracy organization the Malaya Movement. The drug war campaign serves as a guise to suppress government opposition, he said.
For the eighth consecutive year, the Philippines was declared the deadliest country in Asia for defenders of human rights, the environment and natural resources by Global Witness, an environmental NGO. The December Tumandok massacre—in which nine indigenous people were killed and 17 environmental activists arrested in the central Philippines—was cited by the organization as one of the “most shocking” massacres of 2020.
Some rally participants described the White House’s lagging acknowledgement of the human rights crisis in the Philippines as hypocritical, particularly as it continues reaffirming a commitment to human rights in its diplomacy. The Biden administration’s foreign policy is “centered on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights,” according to a statement from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken earlier this year.
“The Biden administration hasn’t made any specific comments about the Philippine Human Rights Act, but it’s talked about renewing a strong partnership with the country,” Nibungco said. “The longer we take, the more people that are going to die.”
And although the legislation is a start, it is not “the silver bullet” for holding the Philippine government responsible, Nibungco said
“The Duterte regime, not to exaggerate, is an existential threat for Filipino people,” Nibungco said. “The country has fought so hard for democratic institutions and he’s practically destroyed them in the span of five years.”