Statement On Environmental Defenders In The Philippines

Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, killings of environmental defenders are shockingly common in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The assassination of Berta Caceres in Honduras three years ago, orchestrated by top officials of a hydroelectric company and carried out by retired and active duty soldiers who had received training from the United States, was emblematic of the widespread use of harassment, threats, and murder to silence those who courageously call for changes in policies and practices to protect the environment.

According to a report released today by Global Witness, the Philippines has the highest number of killings in Asia of people who oppose illegal logging, destructive mining, and corrupt agribusiness, with at least 30 cases documented in 2018. The total number is likely higher, as some investigations are ongoing. Many of the victims simply wanted a say in how their land and the country’s natural resources are used. The perpetrators are almost never arrested or prosecuted.

On July 25, 2016, the Philippines’ newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his first State of the Nation address. He promised to safeguard the country’s rural and indigenous communities, tackle corruption, and protect the environment. The results since then paint a very different and distressing picture. If President Duterte meant what he said, he has failed miserably. According to Global Witness, in the three years before Duterte took office at least 65 land and environmental defenders were murdered. That was appalling enough. But in the three years since he came to power that number rose to 113. At least 31 of those murders were reportedly committed by the Philippine armed forces, whose soldiers and officers act with near total impunity.

The Philippines is a major recipient of U.S. military aid, and we are perceived by the families of the victims to be enablers of these crimes. In addition to increasing support for local environmental defenders, the Secretary of State and Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development should urge the Duterte government to ensure that the right to free, prior, and informed consent of those impacted by policies and practices that threaten their land and natural resources is respected. This is necessary not only to prevent the destruction of forests and farms, the pollution of watersheds, and the extinction of species, but to avoid confrontations and violence that result when extractive industries, supported by the armed forces and police, run roughshod over local communities.

The Secretaries of State and Defense should also ensure that those in the Philippine armed forces who receive our aid respect the rights of civilians and are accountable to the rule of law. When abuses occur they should be thoroughly investigated and the individuals responsible brought to justice. The Leahy Laws require that, and it is the responsibility of U.S. officials to ensure that they are enforced.

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[Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is the Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Ranking Member of the committee’s Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations.]

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