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International relations

US human rights bill risks pushing Duterte closer to China

New legislation in Congress aims to cut aid to Philippine security forces

President Duterte could seek even closer ties with Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, if the Philippine Human Rights Act was passed in the U.S.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- A new bill introduced in the U.S. Congress aims to suspend American aid to Philippine security forces unless Manila commits to human rights reforms.

The Philippine Human Rights Act, if passed, risks pushing the Philippines closer to China and potentially rupturing the alliance between the U.S. and its once colony. This relationship has so far stayed intact despite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's courting of Beijing, his threats to suspend a key security pact with Washington, and his oversight of thousands of extrajudicial killings.

Duterte's deadly drug war has potentially led to more than 27,000 deaths, according to the Philippines' Commission on Human Rights. Hundreds of labor and land activists, journalists and Indigenous leaders have also been killed in military and police operations, part of an expanding counterinsurgency campaign that has targeted political critics under the guise of ending the decades-long armed communist rebellion.

The new bill, introduced last week by Rep. Susan Wild, aims to highlight the U.S. role in Duterte's campaign. Washington provided $554 million in military assistance to the Philippines between 2016 and 2019, and the State Department approved $2 billion in potential sales of attack helicopters earlier this year -- although Manila has indicated it would prefer a smaller purchase.

In July, the Philippines passed a controversial anti-terrorism law which allows suspected terrorists to be detained without charge for up to 24 days. Critics say the law's vague definition of terrorism is designed to indiscriminately target the administration's enemies.

Wild, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, accused the Duterte administration in a speech on the House floor Wednesday of using the law to "ramp up efforts targeting labor organizers, workers and political opponents."

The law would call for the indefinite suspension of direct assistance to Philippine military and police unless it meets several criteria, including protecting government critics and prosecuting security forces who commit rights violations.

But experts say the bill faces long odds of passing in its current form due to the reluctance of the United States to lose a crucial regional security ally.

"The final law may just provide for a symbolic cut in U.S. military aid," said Bobby Tuazon, director for policy studies at the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a Manila-based research think tank. "A complete halt to U.S. military aid will only tighten Duterte's pivot to China and Russia."

A protester attends a rally on July 4 in Metro Manila against an anti-terrorism bill, approved by President Duterte, that allows suspected terrorists to be detained without charge for up to 24 days.   © Reuters

Duterte has welcomed investment from China and has allowed Beijing to lay claim to Philippine waters in the disputed South China Sea. He has also sought closer security ties with Moscow and accepted its offer of a coronavirus vaccine which has been questioned by health experts.

In February, Duterte announced the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows U.S. troops to train with the Philippine military, a decision which angered top generals in Duterte's own armed forces. He reversed his decision in July, shortly after the U.S. approval of attack helicopter sales.

Sen. Vicente Sotto III said last week the Philippines should "reconsider" the Visiting Forces Agreement should the human rights bill pass, while military spokesperson Edgard Arevalo called the proposed law "unfair."

The U.S. has trained top Philippine army officials in counterinsurgency tactics since the 1950s, setting the foundation for a military alliance that has persevered for decades.

While the Philippines faces real security threats, particularly from those affiliated with the Islamic State group in the southern region of Mindanao, military counterinsurgency operations have more often targeted civilian opponents of government policy, such as farmers agitating for land reform and Indigenous groups opposing eviction from their ancestral lands.

But there has been little analysis of the U.S. role in providing training and munitions to soldiers responsible for rights violations and attacks on civilians.

"There is concern from the side of Congress, but there is silence and no clear answers from the State Department," said Drew Elizarde-Miller, U.S. spokesperson for the International Coalition of Human Rights in the Philippines.

In July, five Democratic U.S. senators wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo which raised concerns over human rights violations and crackdowns on journalists and rights defenders and asked for clarity on Washington's Philippine policy. They did not receive a response.

Elizarde-Miller, whose coalition was a key proponent of the human rights act, said he hopes to generate bipartisan support for the bill, which currently has 24 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

"What the [bill] does by its mere introduction and its public presence is it exposes the direct U.S. support of human rights violations in the Philippines," he said.

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