Stop Using Our Tax Dollars for Human Rights Abuses: Pass the Philippines Human Right Act

While the deadline for filing Federal income taxes has been postponed to May 17, the traditional deadline (April 15) is an appropriate time for U.S. taxpayers to reflect on what our tax dollars fund. A significant portion of our taxes funds human rights abuses in the Philippines. Since 2016, the year when Rodrigo Duterte was elected president, the U.S. has sent $550 million dollars in military aid to the Philippines.

Under Duterte, over 30,000 Filipinos have been killed by their government. The killings began as a so-called “War on Drugs,” targeting poor drug users and drug dealers. Under the nebulous provisions of the Anti-Terror Law, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippines National Police are now targeting social activists, accusing (red-tagging) them of being Communists and terrorists. Indigenous people, human rights workers, peasant and labor organizers, environmental activists, journalists, health workers, local elected officials, and clergy have been red-tagged, imprisoned, and extrajudicially killed.

The Duterte government has used COVID-19 lockdown measures to further militarize the country and repress labor and people’s organizations. His police and military have arrested individuals delivering relief and food to those in need, further increasing the number of political prisoners in the country. This militarist approach has worsened the Philippine public health situation while miserably failing to provide a comprehensive health response and adequate economic support to the suffering people amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

We call upon the U.S. Congress to introduce and pass the Philippines Human Rights Act (PHRA). The PHRA would cut off U.S. government funding and assistance (including weapons sales and donations of armaments) to the Philippine military and police. U.S. representatives to multilateral agencies would veto loans and funding. The U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. State Department would be required to submit a report to the Congressional Appropriations Committee regarding such funding and any misappropriation of any other funding to the Philippine military and police.

In order for the PHRA funding restrictions to be lifted, the government of the Philippines would have to guarantee the human rights of its citizens, establish a judicial system to prosecute members of its military and police responsible for human rights violations, and comply with audits and investigations to ensure that U.S. aid is not used for human rights violations.

Such restrictions are not unprecedented. In 2007, then-Senator Barbara Boxer held a hearing on the human rights abuses of the Philippine military, leading to a suspension of military funding the following year. A decrease in human rights abuses followed.

Let us keep in mind that our tax dollars are funding these extra-judicial killings. As U.S. taxpayers – this makes us, to a degree, culpable for these human rights abuses. There are many better uses for our tax dollars.

On this traditional Tax Day, we urge our Congressional representatives to support the PHRA. While in the present moment we are all focused on Myanmar, the U.S. has little leverage over the Myanmar military, while the U.S. has tremendous leverage over the Philippine military. We call for an end to this morally untenable situation.

Seiji Yamada, MD, MPH is a family physician practicing and teaching in Hawaii. Arcelita Imasa, MD is a family medicine resident physician in Hawaii. Mary Ochs has worked as a community organizer and founder/executive director of numerous grass roots, social justice organizations.