An international coalition of anti-war and human rights groups has issued an open letter calling on the U.S. Congress to put a halt to two pending arms sales to the Philippines totaling nearly $2 billion, warning that President Rodrigo Duterte's track record of human rights violations—especially as the nation battles the Covid-19 pandemic—amplifies fears that the weaponry could be used to unleash "violent and devastating impact on Filipinos."
The letter was spearheaded by the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines and Ecumenical Advocacy Network on the Philippines and has been backed by dozens of other national, regional, and international groups as well as hundreds of individual campaigners and community leaders.
"What could help the Filipinos right now is aid for their under-resourced healthcare system and for programs to assist poor people to survive during the current lockdown, not an arms sale." —Open LetterAt issue are two possible sales of U.S. military hardware adding up to nearly $2 billion. The larger of the two, at an estimated $1.5 billion, is for six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters. The other possible sale is for six AH-1Z attack helicopters and related equipment totaling roughly $450 million. Both sales are pending final approval, but as they were announced on April 30, the groups are trying to drum up congressional opposition by a May 29 deadline to either block the sale or at least have it delayed.
"What could help the Filipinos right now is aid for their under-resourced healthcare system and for programs to assist poor people to survive during the current lockdown, not an arms sale," the letter to U.S. lawmakers reads. "We plead with you to use your voice against the gross human rights violations in the Philippines and put forth a resolution to stop arms sales to the Duterte administration until the government takes the effective steps to end human rights abuses."
The weaponry isn't in line with Filipinos' current needs as they face the coronavirus crisis, the letter argues.
WE HAVE A FEW DAYS LEFT TO APPLY PRESSURE TO US CONGRESS TO SAY #NoArmsSalesToDuterte— ICHRP US (@ichrpus) May 26, 2020
Take Action! Sign the letter! No Arm Sales to Philippine President Dutertehttps://t.co/SkBdOFsaEMhttps://t.co/i4vvTKxaHDhttps://t.co/oM5dpEugUN pic.twitter.com/Tmq86YSBQg
In a Foreign Policy in Focus op-ed last week, Amee Chew, a Mellon-ACLS Public Fellow and human rights advocate who helped coordinate the letter, explained that Duterte's response to Covid-19 has been as ill-advised and brutal as his notoriously violent approach to fighting the illegal drug trade. She wrote:
Duterte has placed the military in charge of COVID-19 response. On April 1, he ordered troops to “shoot dead” quarantine violators, causing human rights abuses to immediately surge. The next day, a farmer, Junie Dugog Piñar, was shot and killed by police for violating the COVID-19 lockdown in Agusan del Norte, Mindanao.
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Police have locked curfew violators in dog cages, used torture and sexual humiliation as punishment against LGBTQ people, and beaten and arrested urban poor people protesting for food. Beatings and killings to enforce “enhanced community quarantine” continue. Meanwhile, a teacher was arrested simply for posting “provoking” comments on social media that decried the lack of government relief, while a filmmaker was detained two nights without a warrant for a sarcastic post on COVID-19.
Human Rights Watch last week also called for a block on the weapons sales.
"Approving contracts for attack helicopters would be sending a terrible message to the Philippine government that long-running military abuses without accountability have no consequences on the U.S.-Philippines relationship," said John Sifton, HRW's Asia advocacy director. "Congress should be impressing upon the Philippine government that real reforms are needed to end military abuses before deals like this can be approved."
HRW warns that the U.S. State Department has not received any assurances from the Duterte government about where these U.S. weapons would be deployed or for what purpose they will be used, but the group said U.S. lawmakers have the authority and duty to step in. Congress has various means to stop or delay the sales, the group said, including introducing a "resolution of disapproval" that could be voted into law or individual members on key committees could delay the sale by placing a "hold" on the sales pending further review.
"Congress has the power to dissent but must act swiftly," wrote Chew in her op-ed. "Rep. Ilhan Omar has introduced a bill to stop arming human rights abusers such as Duterte. This month, the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines, Communications Workers of America, and others, will launch a bill specifically to end military aid to the Philippines." She also called on people to sign an online petition opposing the deal.
"The U.S. should not be selling advanced military systems to an abusive, unaccountable Philippine military under cover of a global pandemic," Sifton said. "Congress needs to act now."
Read the full text of the open letter and signatories below:
No Arm Sales to Philippine President Duterte
Dear Members of the United States Congress,
We want to express our concern about the proposed Foreign Military Sales (FMS) of attack helicopters and associated heavy arms to the Philippines that now only Congress can stop. Time is of the essence as without Congressional action to stop these proposed sales by May 29, the arms deal could result in violent and devastating impact on Filipinos.
Published in detail April 30 by Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the following is a brief summary of the two possible deals, both of which mention the possibility of offsets, which means that US taxpayers could end up shouldering some of the cost:
1) From Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the offer includes attack helicopters, a long list of armaments, including rockets and air-to-ground and air-to-air missiles – a total offer of $1.5B to upgrade anti-insurgency capabilities against insurgent forces in the Philippines that do not even have any aircraft
2) From Bell Helicopter and General Electric, the offer includes attack helicopters and associated arms including missiles, laser guidance missile systems, and semi-armor piercing high explosive Incendiary rounds – a total offer of $450M.
The Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, has a history of human rights violations including a brutal war on drugs that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, a crackdown on the media and freedom of speech, and numerous politically motivated arrests and extrajudicial killings. Since the onset of Covid-19, human rights of Filipinos have further deteriorated. UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, along with organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, has raised serious questions about Duterte's “highly militarized response” to the current public health crisis. The Philippines ranks at the top of countries with quarantine-related arrests, which have reached over 30,000 to date. While the Philippine police continue to commit abuses against civilians, the shutdown on May 5th of the largest media broadcasting company (ABS-CBN) may foreshadow re-implementation of a nation-wide martial law. It is noteworthy to recall that the last time such a drastic measure was taken to censor the media was during martial law under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s-80s.
The insurgent New People’s Army (NPA) which remains active after 50 years is maintaining its influence in limited areas of the country but is also engaging, off and on, in a peace process with the government. However, on April 27, 2020, Duterte turned down any possibility of pursuing peace talks over disputes about where the talks should take place, and at the same time threatened to declare martial law. Under the “Whole-of Nation” strategy initiated under Executive Order #70 (2018), Duterte has declared an all-out war against the NPA. This includes “red-tagging” a highly arbitrary tactic whereby members of the military publicly post lists of those deemed as dissenters. Human rights activists, community leaders, legal rights defenders, journalists, religious and tribal leaders, are accused of being members of the NPA. Some have been harassed, threatened, arbitrarily detained and even killed by security forces and government-backed paramilitaries. Among the victims is journalist Brandon Lee, a US citizen who was reporting on human rights abuses targeting environmental activists and was shot and critically injured. Joint police and military operations have resulted in mass killings of farmers and human rights defenders on the island of Negros, and ongoing intimidation, harassment, and killings of indigenous leaders and communities throughout the country.
The indiscriminate use of attack helicopters firing on rural villages has been documented by the KARAPATAN, a Philippine human rights group. In one of the attacks in June 2019, a farmer was killed and 3 people were injured, 14 houses destroyed, and 1000 residents were forcibly evacuated. Most of these attacks have been on indigenous Lumad villages in Mindanao, but two have been reported in Southern Luzon. Also, mass bombing, including bombardment with attack helicopters, resulted in the death of civilians and displacement of 400,000 residents of Marawi City in 2017. Fatalities included members of the armed forces during instances of “friendly-fire.” Civilians have questioned the necessity of the extent of the damage.
The Philippine government is struggling financially to respond to the needs of Filipinos resulting from the Covid-19 crisis, and Duterte has stated that the country may even need to start selling government assets. What could help the Filipinos right now is aid for their under-resourced healthcare system and for programs to assist poor people to survive during the current lockdown, not an arms sale.
We plead with you to use your voice against the gross human rights violations in the Philippines and put forth a resolution to stop arms sales to the Duterte administration until the government takes the effective steps to end human rights abuses.
Ecumenical Advocacy Network on the Philippines
International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines – U.S.
Advanced League of Peoples’ Artists – Melbourne, Australia
American Friends Service Committee
Anakbayan – Philippines
Anakbayan – USA
Asians for Black Lives
Bai Indigenous Women’s Network – Philippines
Bay Area Poor People’s Campaign
BAYAN – Portland
Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists Social Justice Committee
Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression
Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES)
Democratic Socialists of America — San Francisco International Solidarity Committee
Dutch Philippine Solidarity Association
GuateMaya L.A. Mujeres en Resistencia
Haiti Action Committee
Human Rights Alliance for Child Refugees and Families
Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace
International Migrants Alliance – USA
League of Filipino Students
Liyang Western Massachusetts
MAIZ (Movimiento de Acion, Inspirando Servicio)
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Massachusetts Peace Action
Migrante – Austria
Migrante – Perth, Australia
Migrante – USA
National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA
National Lawyers Guild International Committee
National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles
No Mames Radio
Nodutdol for Korean Community Development
Parable Of The Sower Intentional Community Cooperative
Parisol / Pacific Rim Solidarity Network Seattle
Philippine Study Group of Minnesota
Philippines-U.S. Solidarity Organization – Seattle
Portland Central America Solidarity Committee
Prevention At The Intersections
Resist US-Led War Movement
Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (SAKA, Artists Alliance for Genuine Agrarian Reform) Science For The People
Southern California Pilipinx-American Student Alliance (SCPASA)
Stand with Kashmir
The Resistance Center for Peace and Justice
University of Washington United Students Against Sweatshops
War Resisters League
Whatcom Peace & Justice Center
Win Without War
Women Against Military Madness
World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Young Democratic Socialists of America – Northern Arizona University
In addition, over 1,100 individuals and community leaders from the U.S., Philippines, and around the world have also signed. To add your name, please visit this website.