Local rights groups upset as violations glossed over in Marcos-Biden meeting

LOCAL groups have expressed disappointment at the lack of emphasis on the Philippines’ human rights situation during the May 1 meeting between US President Joseph R. Biden and President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.

There were no substantial agreements made to ensure that past and emerging human rights concerns in the Philippines, including problems faced by human rights advocates working on the ground, would be addressed, the group In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND) said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“We think the pronouncements are all broad and vague. While they say that there is a need for the advancement of human rights in the country, we think that it wasn’t considered in the partnerships and agreements set.”

During their bilateral meeting in Washington on May 1, the two leaders “shared democratic values that strengthen our alliance immeasurably,” the White House said in a fact sheet.

“Promoting respect for human rights and rule of law, and ensuring civil society leaders and members of marginalized communities are safe from violence, are key priorities for the US-Philippines relationship,” it said. 

It said the US wants to contribute to the Philippines-United Nations (UN) Joint Programme for Human Rights.

The two countries will establish a bilateral Labor Working Group, which is in line with their trade and investment framework agreement.

However, iDEFEND said such agreements “between governments should emanate from real and actual knowledge of what’s happening on the ground.” 

The group said the two countries also failed to ensure that the expansion of their 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) would not lead to human rights violations and disruption of culture and livelihood in host communities.

“We’ve already had actual cases where justice was never really served. Disruptions in the communities’ lives and livelihoods were never addressed and in fact, were undermined as they push through with these (military) exercises,” iDEFEND said. “So the fact remains that this cooperation agreement between the US and the Philippines is a one-sided deal that only benefits one party while exploiting and affecting the lives of the citizens.”

Mr. Biden also did not bring up “existing struggles” on the ground between communities and mining companies, noting that there were “actual atrocities” that needed attention from the government.

“Yet, the only thing they can say is ‘improve governance standards in the mining industry’.”

The Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA), in a separate Messenger chat, said, “The result of the May 1 meeting between the two leaders only shows that human rights are not the center of US foreign policy under the Biden administration.”

PAHRA and iDEFEND have been calling on the US government and the international community to exert pressure on Mr. Marcos to pave the way for the release of ex-senator Leila M. de Lima, who has been in detention since her arrest in 2017 on drug trafficking charges, which critics and European lawmakers have said are baseless and meant to harass her.

Since April 2022, most of the key witnesses have recanted their testimonies against Ms. De Lima, saying they were coerced by government officials under former President Rodrigo R. Duterte, whose deadly drug war is now being investigated by the International Criminal Court.

PAHRA, meanwhile, noted that press freedom issues in the Philippines were also sidelined during the Marcos-Biden meeting.

On Tuesday, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said human rights violations against media practitioners continue under the Marcos administration.

It noted that as of April 30, there were 60 reported cases of harassment, red-tagging and other cases of censorship against Philippine journalists.

The latest World Press Freedom index by Reporters Without Borders said the Philippines remained a “difficult” country for journalists despite the improvement in its 2023 scores.

Maria Ela L. Atienza, former head of the University of the Philippines’ political science department, said the White House statement indicating US commitment to help protect civil society leaders and members of marginalized communities against violence “could be indicative of the strong pressure on the Philippines not only from the US and other countries but the UN and civil society groups to uphold human rights and address many related issues the Marcos administration has continued or inherited from the previous administration.”

“Of course, the meeting covered a comprehensive agenda for the two countries’ partnership. Human rights was not the only agenda but it was part of the meeting,” she said in a Viber message.

“Now, we have to see how both countries are really committed to all these so-called commitments and points of the partnership.”

Mr. Biden had promised to promote accountability for governments that abuse human rights when the US was elected to the Human Rights Council 2021 for a three-year term.

However, Mr. Biden himself had been criticized for failing to discuss human rights when he met leaders of several Middle Eastern countries in July 2022.

“He was criticized during his visit and for apparently ingratiating himself with leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel, close allies of the US, despite the killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in May 2022 and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018,” PAHRA explained.

Human Rights Watch earlier said that since Mr. Marcos took office in June, Washington has significantly increased assistance to the Philippines “primarily through defense spending.”

Mr. Marcos in February expanded the EDCA, giving Washington access to four more military bases on top of the five existing sites.

The Philippine leader, 65, is the son of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, who was toppled by a popular uprising in February 1986 after his government plundered public coffers and committed human rights violations, which have been documented by various domestic and international organizations.

Mr. Biden, who was a senator in 1986, was part of a committee that declared the 1986 snap elections in the Philippines fraudulent.

Observers have said the US president may not keenly look at the younger Marcos’ commitment to human rights because Washington needs Manila as it counters China’s influence in the region.

Arjan P. Aguirre, a political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, called the phenomenon “strategic blackmailing.”

“Biden has just announced his plan for reelection, and he intends to politicize the tension with China for this purpose,” he said, noting that the Biden government will “guarantee” that issues confronting the Marcos family including their ill-gotten wealth case “won’t be raised against the Marcos government in the near future.”    

Cleve V. Arguelles, president of research firm WR Numero, said the Philippine leader’s political baggage would likely shape his foreign policy decisions.

His willingness to be seen on the global stage could be part of “restorationist” agenda seeking to rebrand the image of his family.

Ms. Atienza said Mr. Marcos may be trying to replicate his father’s dealings with other countries, including the US, which had backed the elder Marcos during his presidency.

“Marcos Sr. presented himself as a leader at ease in the international community. His regime was supported by the US and its allies during the Cold War period,” she said. “[But] times have changed and international relations are more complex now.”

“Marcos Jr. has more difficulties, with [western] allies also calling on the Philippines to observe the rule of law, strengthen democratic institutions and processes, and uphold human rights.” — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza