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Like in Israel, US Backing Gives War Criminals Free Rein in Philippines

US-backed regimes in the Philippines have committed gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (right) meets with the president of the Philippines, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., at Malacanang Palace in Manila on November 21, 2022.

The ongoing genocide case filed by South Africa against Israel before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) marks a crucial step forward in addressing violations of international humanitarian law and a reaffirmation of the importance of holding states accountable for their actions. It sends a signal not only to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but also to other war criminals — that they cannot simply drop bombs on civilian populations and face no consequences.

It is not only Israel, however, where war criminals in power think they can get away with murder. In the Philippines, too, the current administration of Ferdinand “BongBong” Marcos Jr. and his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte have committed countless violations of human rights and international laws with impunity.

On December 30, 2020, nine Tumandok Indigenous people were killed while 10 others were arrested in police operations on Panay Island. According to the Philippine government then under the Duterte administration, the Indigenous leaders they massacred “fought back” after being served with search warrants. This alibi, however, is far from the truth. The Tumandok leaders had campaigned against the construction of the nearby Jalaur Dam, which would displace Indigenous communities from their ancestral lands. The leaders were also previously “red-tagged” — labeled as communists — without evidence by the Philippine military.

The military often brands dissenters as members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA), a charge it equates to “terrorism,” which can amount to a death sentence. Since the NPA’s establishment in 1969, various administrations since Ferdinand Marcos Sr. have launched their own “counterinsurgency’” operations to defeat the armed resistance. The Philippine government views the armed conflict simply as an issue of “law and order” that had to be prioritized while conveniently disregarding the persistent grip of poverty, joblessness and landlessness of the toiling Filipino masses which are at the roots of the 55-year civil war. Regardless of their motivations, the current Ferdinand Marcos Jr. regime and his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte have clearly conflated the distinction between combatants and noncombatants in the ongoing civil war, resulting in indiscriminate attacks against civilian communities, including the case of the Tumandok Indigenous peoples in Panay.

Prior to the Tumandok massacre, mass murder complaints had been filed against Duterte at the International Criminal Court (ICC) citing the killing of thousands under his so-called “war on drugs.” After assuming office in 2016, Duterte made combatting drug trafficking and substance abuse the centerpiece of his administration’s policy agenda. Under his administration, up to 30,000 alleged “drug offenders” have been killed in both police operations and vigilante-style executions, often without due process. Duterte’s war on drugs and his use of terror tactics created a culture of impunity, with law enforcement officials and vigilante groups flourishing while circumventing the rule of law and measures to protect human rights.

Extrajudicial killings continued under Marcos Jr., who became president in June 2022. On June 14, 2023, soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP’s) 94th Infantry Battalion (94th IB) stormed into the hut of the Fausto family and executed spouses Rolly, 52, and Emilda, 51, and their two children Ben, 15, and Raben, 11. Emilda and her children were killed in their sleep, while Rolly was dragged to a nearby sugarcane field, where he was killed. Shaken by the evidence of their war crimes, the Marcos administration left no stone unturned in distorting the facts and making baseless accusations that the massacre was purportedly committed by the NPA. The Faustos were active members of the Baklayan, Bito, Cabagal Farmers Association (BABICAFA), a locally registered peasant and farmworkers organization. Prior to their killings, the Faustos were subjected to interrogation by soldiers of the 94th IB, who accused them of being supporters of the NPA.

The massacre of the Fausto family is the fifth mass killing committed by military units under their Commander-in-Chief Marcos Jr. According to human rights watchdog Karapatan, at least 89 victims of extrajudicial killings have been documented since Marcos Jr. assumed power from July 2022 to the end of 2023.

Countless other cases demonstrate gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian laws under the Marcos and Duterte regimes. The common thread between these cases of massacres, aerial bombings and “red-tagging” is that both Marcos and Duterte claim that such attacks targeting civilians, entire communities and Indigenous leaders are so-called “counterinsurgency” operations against communist forces. However, international humanitarian law prohibits collective punishment during an armed conflict and it is tantamount to a war crime.

Much like how Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian lands must have legal consequences under international law, Marcos and Duterte’s war crimes must not go unpunished.

While the Filipino people and their allies abroad are generally supportive of the ICC case against Duterte’s war on drugs, the international justice system has its own limitations. Most notably, the cases filed against both Israel and Duterte at the ICJ and ICC, respectively, bear no mention of the United States government’s complicity. This is despite the fact that the U.S. has emboldened Israel with billions of dollars in military funding for decades, and has continued its support for Marcos Jr. and Duterte’s counterinsurgency operations patterned after the U.S. Counterinsurgency Guide and National Security Strategy.

The U.S. Counterinsurgency Guide (COIN) was first introduced in 2009 by the U.S. State Department under then President Barrack Obama. The guide introduced the concept of a “whole-of-nation approach” which combines military, political, economic and social measures to counter what the US government deemed as “terrorists.” This document has since then inspired the various counterinsurgency plans from the administration of Gloria Macapacal-Arroyo (2001-2010) to the current Marcos Jr. administration. Since then, U.S. President Joe Biden issued the U.S. National Security Strategy in 2022 to outline the U.S. government’s foreign defense blueprint, including its position to “out-compete” China — a position that has translated to using joint maritime exercises that specifically target China.

Since 2015, the U.S. has allocated over $1 billion in security assistance to the Philippines, making it the top beneficiary of U.S. military aid in the Indo-Pacific region. More recently, the U.S. Senate has started discussing the new Philippines Enhance Resilience Act of 2024 (PERA Act), which aims to provide a total of $2.5 billion of foreign military funding to the Philippines from 2025 through 2029. The PERA Act comes on the heels of the recent trilateral summit between the U.S., Japan and the Philippines which discussed a joint military strategy to contain China’s growing influence in the region.

In this context, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) and the Friends of the Filipino People in Struggle (FFPS) are conducting an International Peoples Tribunal (IPT) on May 17 to 18 to hold the U.S.-backed Marcos and Duterte regimes accountable for their war crimes.

As a court of public opinion, the IPT’s findings are not legally binding, but nevertheless carry significant political and moral weight. The verdict of the IPT can serve as a powerful tool for raising awareness and mobilizing public opinion on atrocities and injustices committed by the defendants. It also provides further international pressure for official investigations to be conducted or legal actions to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. Ultimately, this people’s court may contribute to the documentation of historical truths, shape international public opinion and form the basis for future legal action in a formal court. The Filipino people victimized by the violations of international humanitarian law in the ongoing civil war deserve such justice.

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