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Human Rights Lawyers Expose Misuse of U.S. Aid to the Philippines

October 5, 2006

“The presence of U.S. troops on Philippine soil has always been particularly devastating to women.” This is one of the baldly stated findings of the Women’s Human Rights Delegation to the Philippines, which released its final report September 21. Lawyers Tina Monshipour Foster, Rachel Lederman, Vanessa Lucas and Merrilyn Onisko—representing the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers—constituted this summer’s fact-finding mission to investigate human rights violations in the Philippines. An increasing “kill rate” of women activists and organizers, now numbering 79, and rebellion charges filed against six congress members, including Gabriela Women’s Party Representative Liza Maza, were the main impetus for the mission. The lawyers also focused on the trial of four U.S. marines accused of raping a 22-year-old Filipina, called “Nicole” to shield her identity. In the trial that ended today, the judge set November 27 as the tentative date for his verdict. The mission’s comprehensive report, with 55 citations from official and public documents, was released on the anniversary of the declaration of martial law by former dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos. The report exposes: a military operational plan that “conflates” armed combatants with unarmed civilians; extra-judicial killings of lawyers and judges, journalists and activists; a Constitutional change proposed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to consolidate her power; and the complicit role of the United States. The lawyers noted that the U.S. aid to the Philippines had increased by 2000% since 2001, ranking it fourth among nations receiving military aid. “The United States has an abiding interest in quelling any unrest which threatens its partnership with the Arroyo regime,” the report noted. “Despite its many denials, the U.S. cannot escape responsibility for the attacks now taking place against human rights and democracy in the Philippines.” The trial of the four U.S. marines has become a quintessential expression of the oppressive relations between the U.S. and its former colony. Among the report’s findings: The U.S. tried to get the marines off the islands and the charges “either reduced or dropped”; employed delaying tactics so that a one-year time limit imposed on such prosecutions by the Visiting Forces Agreement could be invoked to render the charges moot; and “refused to provide U.S. embassy personnel to testify and at different points, have not had the accused even attend the hearings.” The defendants contend that the sex was consensual, even though Nicole was found barely conscious and semi-naked in a roadside ditch after the alleged rape. An American observer at the trial, Gemma Mirkinson, noted that “everyone agreed Nicole was wasted and in any other country, that would be enough to say she could not give consent.” The 22-year-old Filipina erupted into rage at one point in the trial, hitting one of the marines with her purse. Mirkinson said that it was frustrating to see both the accused and their counsels grinning and laughing, like it was all a joke. Three weeks ago, Nicole’s mother demanded that the prosecutors—with one exception, the team’s sole female member—be replaced, after the lead prosecutor reportedly advised her to “settle” the case. The mission report concluded with a call to international human rights organizations, including the United Nations, “to continue to monitor and publicize the escalating repression in the Philippines.” In addition, the report demanded that the U.S. Congress investigate “the use of U.S. funding for Philippine military operations against the legal left that are being conducted under the guise of the War on Terror. The U.S. must condemn the killings of political activists and baseless prosecutions of elected legislators, and acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that the killings are being carried out by the Philippine military and paramilitary death squads under Philippine Government policy. The United States must stop providing military support to the Arroyo administration.” With inadequate schools, hospitals and clinics, with roads potholed, with electricity often unavailable available to far-flung barrios, with garbage uncollected in city streets, indeed with children living upon garbage dumps, with barely potable water, Filipinos have wondered for over a hundred years why military aid has been the priority for the U.S., rather than books, food, medicine and a technology of life, not death.