Statement On The United States and the Philippines

. . . Congressional Record

Mr. LEAHY.  I want to take a few moments to discuss an issue that has garnered some attention in recent months, which is our relations with the Government of the Philippines, including President Duterte’s counter-drug strategy and his government’s treatment of those who have openly criticized that strategy.

It is important to first recount the long history of friendship and strategic cooperation between the United States and the Philippines.  Family and cultural ties that extend back many generations bind us together, as do our shared goals in East Asia and the Pacific.  Our armed forces regularly engage in joint exercises to enhance regional security.  Despite our differences, relations between our two countries are strong and based on mutual respect. 

We should also extend our deepest sympathies to those harmed by the recent eruption of the Taal volcano in Luzon.  It has displaced tens of thousands of families and destroyed the livelihoods of many.  The U.S. Agency for International Development, and international organizations that receive U.S. funding like the World Food Programme, are responding with humanitarian aid to those in need, which I and others in Congress strongly support. 

One of the manifestations of our longstanding, close relations with the Philippines is the assistance we provide annually to promote a wide range of interests there, from humanitarian and economic assistance to military assistance, which in fiscal year 2019 totaled more than $150 million.  However, as is the case for other recipients of U.S. assistance, those funds are not an entitlement and they are not a blank check.  For example, in the Philippines they may not be used to support police counter-drug operations.  We condemn the thousands of extrajudicial executions of suspected drug users and drug-traffickers by police and their collaborators.  Such a strategy is not consistent with due process and the rule of law, nor an effective way to combat the trafficking and abuse of illegal drugs that every country, including the United States, is struggling with.  We do support treatment programs for Filipinos suffering from drug addiction. 

We also stand strongly in support of freedom of expression, whether in the Philippines or anywhere else, including in our own country.  And that, as well as President Duterte’s counter-drug strategy, is what underlies our current disagreement with his government that is illustrated, most recently, by the passage without opposition of Senate Resolution 142, which condemns the imprisonment of Senator Leila De Lima and calls for her immediate release.  It also calls on the Government of the Philippines to guarantee freedom of the press and to drop charges against Maria Ressa and the online news network Rappler. 

As said by Senator Durbin who, like I, cosponsored that Resolution, “[i]n the end, [De Lima’s] freedom and the end of government harassment against journalists like Maria Ressa will be important tests of whether cherished democratic norms we share with our long-standing Filipino allies will be respected by President Duterte.”

The response of the Duterte government was regrettable, albeit not uncharacteristic.  Like Senator Durbin, I have become accustomed to being on the receiving end of baseless personal attacks by President Duterte’s spokesman, as if those attacks might intimidate us or boost domestic support for his government.  Rather than respond substantively to legitimate concerns about extrajudicial killings, impunity, and freedom of expression that I, Senator Durbin, Senator Markey, our Democratic and Republican colleagues, the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, and respected human rights organizations have raised over the years, we are told that Senate Resolution 142 is based on “bogus narratives . . . promoted by Duterte’s usual antagonists.”  We are accused of being “prejudiced” and “misguided”, our support for Senator De Lima “a direct and shameless affront to the Republic of the Philippines, which has long ceased to be a colony of the United States.”  Our actions are called “brazen and intrusive to the dignity of an independent, democratic and sovereign state” which would “not be bullied by any foreign country or by its officials, especially by misinformed and gullible politicians who grandstand at our expense.”  Going a step further, the Duterte government inexplicably threatened to deny visas to Americans who seek to visit the Philippines and who have nothing to do with these concerns.

Such vitriolic hyperbole is barely deserving of a response, but suffice it to say that none of us remotely regards the Philippines as a colony of the United States, nor are our concerns about the treatment of Senator De Lima and Maria Ressa an intrusion of the Philippines’ sovereignty, which we respect.  Senate Resolution 142 is based on consistent reporting by the Trump Administration’s State Department, the United Nations, and other credible observers, including in the Philippines, who share the conviction that defending freedom of expression has nothing to do with sovereignty.  To the contrary, it is everyone’s responsibility, wherever it is denied.  If there is any “intrusion of dignity” or “shameless affront” in this instance, it is the harassment, threats, false charges, and imprisonment of those who have dared to criticize the Duterte government’s lawless counter-drug strategy.

None of us here, nor in the Philippines, has an interest in prolonging this dispute.  To the contrary, we want to enhance our cooperation in a multitude of areas of common interest – from maritime security to human trafficking to climate change.  What 100 U.S. Senators – Republicans and Democrats – have urged is succinctly spelled out in the Resolution.  Rather than deny visas to Americans, many of whom have family in the Philippines, and rather than resort to ad hominem attacks, there is, as Senator Durbin has said, “an easy and honorable way forward.”  As I have said for months, we are not aware of any credible evidence that Senator De Lima, who has been detained for nearly three years, is guilty of the crimes she has been accused of.  If such evidence exists, it should be promptly produced in a public trial, and she should be provided the opportunity to refute it.  Otherwise she should be released.  As a former prosecutor, I know that is the minimum to which anyone accused of a crime is entitled. 

And respected, courageous investigative journalists like Maria Ressa should be able to publish without fear of retaliation.  There is no surer way to destroy the underpinnings of democracy than by using threats and unlawful arrest to silence the press.   

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