When Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., visits the United States and meets with U.S. President Joe Biden next week, human rights must be at the heart of any discussions about the two countries’ security relationship. There has been scant accountability for extrajudicial killings and other abuses committed on a wide scale by Philippine security forces, and the sheer extent of U.S. assistance to those forces gives the United States a degree of responsibility for their conduct.
In a similar context, the victims of abuses by U.S. security partners saw a modest win last fall when the State Department reallocated $130 million in foreign military financing that had been slated to go to Egypt. It did so because it could not certify that the Egyptian authorities were “taking sustained and effective steps” toward addressing the human rights-related conditions that Congress had imposed on the funds.
Most of the reassigned funds, though, were sent without similar conditions to the Philippines, another partner of the United States whose security forces have committed serious human rights abuses against their own people.
On the eve of Marcos’s visit, the current mood in Washington around U.S.-Philippine relations is just short of exuberant, as the Marcos administration is proving to be quite committed to the countries’ security alliance. Marcos has offered expanded access to military bases after his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, had flirted with scrapping a key U.S. treaty and realigning his country with China. U.S. counterparts nonetheless need to convey that U.S. security assistance will depend at least in part on progress on human rights.
During the six-year term of Duterte’s administration, which ended in 2022, the brutal “war on drugs” that the Philippine police carried out consumed most of the attention that U.S. officials gave to human rights in the Philippines. But Filipino human rights groups like Karapatan have made clear that the transition to the Marcos administration did not stop extrajudicial killings and other abuses. Such abuses have not been limited to the police, but rather include killings of human rights defenders and other civilians by security forces engaged in an armed conflict with a communist rebel group.
The U.S. government is well aware of these trends. The State Department noted in its latest human rights report that, for example, the often-deadly practice of “red-tagging” (labeling critics or activists as communists or terrorists) has continued under the Marcos administration. U.S. diplomats stress that they always raise the issue of human rights in meetings with Philippine counterparts, and the readouts of recent high-level meetings do mention it. But the abuses have continued, and impunity still prevails.
Human Rights First (where I work), other civil society organizations, and U.S. members of Congress have urged the U.S. Treasury and State Departments to impose targeted sanctions under the Global Magnitsky program against specific Philippine officials allegedly involved in extrajudicial killings. This would be a more targeted approach to pressing for accountability than cutting security assistance, and one that has produced a measure of behavior change in the context of other U.S. security partnerships. But the two agencies have not acted despite abundant evidence of sanctionable abuses.
For its part, Congress has for several years taken steps – mostly modest ones – to nudge the executive branch into seeking greater accountability in its partner’s armed forces.
Its most serious move was to ban U.S. counternarcotics assistance to the Philippine National Police, which was deeply compromised in Duterte’s war on drugs. But Congress has also required the State Department to submit occasional reports on, for example, Philippine efforts to prosecute armed forces personnel involved in extrajudicial killings, and to stop acts of intimidation and violence by state or paramilitary forces against journalists and human rights activists.
These reports appear not to have been made public, even when Congress has directed that they be posted online. It is thus hard to know whether the U.S. government has claimed to see progress, or felt more pressure to act because of the lack of progress. The increasingly skeptical and prescriptive tone of Congress’s requests – it directed the State Department this year to explain how U.S. security assistance is actually “helping to achieve results in addressing the findings” in its reports – suggests an awareness that these nudges are not working.
There are more tools in the policy toolkit, though, and the executive branch and Congress should use them.
- In the immediate term, one priority we at Human Rights First have heard from local activists for next week’s visit is for Biden to ask Marcos to end the practice of red-tagging, which has so often led to the harassment or even murder of journalists, humanitarian workers, indigenous leaders, and human rights defenders.
- To reinforce such a request, Congress should condition U.S. security assistance on a set of criteria like those it developed for assistance to the Egyptian government, which include taking steps to hold security forces accountable and protect the safety and rights of activists.
- The U.S. government’s handling of its military aid to Egypt has been no model for effective human rights diplomacy, and many Filipino groups support a total cutoff of security assistance until the Philippine government ends impunity and makes reforms. If not enough members of Congress will back that approach, conditioning at least some assistance would convey that the United States will no longer play out an endless cycle of “raising the issue” of human rights from year to year without real stakes.
- The International Criminal Court’s investigation of extrajudicial killings in the war on drugs is a rare and important independent probe into abuses in the Philippines; the State Department has acknowledged the probe’s existence but not publicly taken a position on it. The U.S. government’s own history of hostility toward the court gives it little standing to press for full cooperation, but it should encourage Philippine authorities not to interfere with the family members of victims or others who may wish to cooperate with the investigation themselves.
The United States should know that it cannot successfully pursue its security interests in the Asia-Pacific region at the expense of the basic rights of its partners’ citizens. As we at Human Rights First said in a case study about the Philippines last year, “[w]idespread killings and persistent impunity are not a sustainable foundation for such an alliance, and they portend further democratic backsliding and instability that would drive the two countries apart.”