World Watch: Human Rights Abuse in the Philippines

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T he new president of the Philippines, Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr. — son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos — inherits a presidency stained by bloodshed and human rights abuses. The past president, the authoritarian Rodrigo Duterte, made his crackdown on drug users and dealers the focal point of his rule of the predominantly Catholic Southeast Asian country. 

Without mentioning documented harassment of journalists, “red-tagging” of Catholic sisters as communists, or killings by police and military forces, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the U.S. relationship with the Philippines as “extraordinary” when he met with Marcos in August. Blinken said the United States stands ready to work with Marcos in areas of defense, climate change and controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Joe Biden also put aside past disagreements and ongoing concerns for human rights and democracy when he met with Marcos during the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September. “We’ve had some rocky times, but the fact is it’s a critical, critical relationship, from our perspective,” Biden said in a press conference before the meeting.

Both leaders say what makes their relationship so important is “the situation in the South China Sea,” referring to sweeping claims by China of sovereignty over the sea where other countries, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, have long held maritime rights. The United States and the Philippines recognize the need to work together if they want to push back against growing Chinese power in the region.

But where does that leave the people of the Philippines, suffering under a government with weakened respect for human rights and democratic norms?

Brandon Lee, a U.S. citizen, journalist and activist who was shot in the Philippines in a suspected extrajudicial assassination attempt in 2019, released a recorded video message to Biden on social media.

“For nine years, I lived in the Philippines with my wife and daughter,” Lee said in the video. “I was an environmentalist, human rights volunteer and community-based journalist, writing to protect the indigenous people against the development aggression on their land and livelihood. In response to my advocacy and activism, Philippine military harassed, intimidated and threatened me. I was under constant surveillance for five years and on August 6th of 2019, they shot me in front of my family. I nearly died. I suffered eight cardiac arrests and now I’m a quadriplegic. I cannot use my hands or my legs. I’m paralyzed from the chest down.”

Now living with his family in the States, Lee asks Biden to “raise the critical issue of human rights to the new Philippine administration.”

Lee alleges in the recording that during the past six years under Duterte, Philippine military and police killed over 30,000 people with impunity. During the first month under Marcos, he says, illegal arrests and indiscriminate killings of activists have already taken place.

Lee concludes, “The U.S./Philippine relationship should not only be based on economic and military interest but most importantly, on the respect for human rights, justice and accountability to its people.”


Learn more about human rights concerns in the Philippines

• Ask Congress to pass the Philippines Human Rights Act to suspend security assistance to the Philippines until the government demonstrates respect for human rights.

• Watch Brandon Lee’s video at

The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, based in Washington, D.C., is a resource for Maryknoll on matters of peace, social justice and integrity of creation, and brings Maryknoll’s mission experience into U.S. policy discussions. Phone (202) 832-1780, visit or email


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Susan Gunn

Susan Gunn is director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.