President Barack Obama will meet Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on July 30, his first meeting with a Southeast Asian head of state. Although it’s too early to see where the Obama administration will take policy in Southeast Asia, Obama’s personal connection to the region will likely increase Southeast Asia’s profile in Washington.

This meeting marks a first opportunity for Obama to push the reset button on U.S. engagement toward the region. The administration is poised to move beyond the Bush team’s narrow focus on counter-terrorism, its dismissal of regional institutions such as ASEAN, and its reliance on the Pacific Command as the dominant face of U.S. policy in the region.

Several developments make this an important juncture in U.S-Philippine relations. The Philippine government has launched a new offensive against the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines, with a mandate to rout the group by the end of the year and to capture three suspected members of the Indonesian terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiah, who are believed to be hiding on the island of Jolo. U.S. troops, which have been based in the Philippines since January 2002, are providing advice and intelligence and may be accompanying Philippine troops into combat. The long-term presence of U.S. troops has raised concerns over U.S. objectives in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the Philippine government just announced a halt to offensive military operations against elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a political-military organization fighting for the self-determination of Muslim Filipinos (known as Moros) in the southern Philippines. Although a ceasefire has formally been in place since 2003, fighting broke out following the collapse of negotiations last year in a dispute over the status of land and natural resources in a political settlement. The fighting led to an increase of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Mindanao, currently estimated at 300,000-430,000, down from 600,000 last September.

Finally, peace negotiations between the government and the Marxist rebel group that has been fighting for nearly four decades are scheduled to reopen in August after a long hiatus.

Against this backdrop of war and negotiations, a series of recent reports by human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Freedom House, the State Department, and the United Nations, describe the Arroyo administration’s ongoing failure to hold perpetrators of political violence accountable. These reports chronicle the conscious and systematic erosion of democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Arroyo’s Goals

President Arroyo will be aiming to use this visit to deflect attention from abysmal poll numbers and a poorly performing economy, as well as to ask for increased aid resources for the Philippines in the run up to elections next year.

Arroyo has the dubious honor of being the least popular president of the post-Marcos era and the only one since 1986 with a negative approval rating. In June, 26% percent of Filipinos surveyed approved and 56% disapproved of her performance. Accusations of election fraud in the 2004 elections and a series of major corruption scandals have driven down her popularity, a decline also reflected in several impeachment efforts and three coup attempts. Her political survival, purchased at the cost of the conscious erosion of already fragile democratic political institutions, has involved strengthening patronage networks in the Congress, granting the military carte blanche, and preventing the legislature from exercising oversight over the executive branch.

Despite increases in GDP, poverty rates in the Philippines increased from 2003-2006 (the latest figures available) according to economist Arsenio Balisacan. Overall, poverty rates have stagnated or worsened since 1997. Poverty and lack of access to basic services are worst in the Mindanao-Sulu region. Within that region, the very worst situation is in the autonomous region of Muslim Mindanao, which was established following a peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front in the 1990s.

Human Rights and Wrongs

The Arroyo government stands accused of several varieties of human rights violations that are most closely related to the erosion of democracy and the rule of law. These include unlawful detention, torture, and extra judicial execution of activists, the impunity of attacks against journalists, and the resurgence of death squads operating at the behest of, or with the complicity of, local political elites. Other sources of civilian deaths in the Philippines are also important, including clan violence, bombings by terrorist organizations cum criminal gangs like Abu Sayyaf and the Rajah Solaiman group, and attacks on civilians by the MILF and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA). The CPP/NPA has pursued a strategy of assassinations against former members of the CPP as well as against independent left leaders, in violation of its own commitments to respect human rights as a signatory of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, which it signed along with Philippine government in 1998.

Attacks on citizen activists have increased under Arroyo, as part of a particular strategy of counterinsurgency against the CPP/NPA, which involves targeting citizens alleged by the military or police to be “linked to” or supportive of the CPP. Estimates of the total number of politically oriented extrajudicial executions since 2001 range from 200 (according to some government agencies) to over 800 (according to some Philippine human rights advocates). This is on top of accusations of disappearances, unlawful detentions, and harassment. Most recently, Melissa Roxas, a Filipino-American, has alleged that elements of the Philippine military kidnapped and tortured her in May, and has recently testified before the Philippine Commission on Human Rights regarding her allegations.

The main issue associated with these killings is the impunity of the perpetrators. According to Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions:

Since 2007, the Government has successfully prosecuted just one perpetrator of an extrajudicial execution. And not a single member of the armed forces has been convicted for killing leftist activists…Additionally, neither the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) nor the Philippine National Police (PNP) have significantly stepped up their investigations of the killings of leftist activists. Impunity for past killings, combined with a green light for future killings, will prevail unless there is a sharp change in course.

Journalists have been another major victim of assassinations, harassment, and threats. The Committee to Protect Journalists identifies 35 journalists killed as a result of their work in the Philippines from 1992-July 8, 2009 — the fifth highest in the world. Three journalists were murdered in June of this year alone. Yet only three cases have resulted in a conviction. The Committee ranks the Philippines sixth worldwide in its “Global Impunity Index,” which lists countries that fail to prosecute cases of journalists killed for their work.

Although the military sometimes harasses and attacks journalists, local political disputes drive the majority of these incidents. There is no overarching strategy animating extrajudicial executions and harassment of activists. But the impunity associated with these issues reflects the same institutional problems: the weakness of the Philippine state, and unwillingness of the Arroyo administration and elites to subordinate the exercise of coercive force to constitutional principles.

Setting a New Tone

The Obama administration should use the meeting with Arroyo to begin laying the foundation for a new relationship with the Philippines, one that addresses the immediate human rights violations as well as long-term efforts to resolve the political and social conditions underlying insurgencies. This would require addressing concerns over the long-term presence of U.S. troops, ensuring that military aid doesn’t fuel repressive and unaccountable military institutions, and providing aid that strengthens democracy and respect for human rights.

Under pressure from U.S. and Philippine human rights advocates, the U.S. Congress imposed conditions on a symbolic amount of military assistance ($2 million) in last year’s budget, contingent on the human rights record of the Arroyo government. The funds were released even though the U.S. government didn’t publicly report on the implementation of these conditions. Obama should publicly support transparent reporting on whether the Philippines has met those conditions.

The Obama administration can also ease suspicions over long-term objectives of U.S. policy by renouncing plans for the establishment of bases of any type and setting a timetable for withdrawal of the several hundred troops based in the Philippines. What was presented as a short-term deployment of U.S. advisors in early 2002 has now mushroomed to a de facto permanent presence of Special Operations forces in Mindanao, as well as a dramatic increase in other training efforts and military assistance. This task force doesn’t benefit the long-term interests of the United States if such assistance reinforces unaccountable and repressive tendencies within the military and the police, weakens civilian control over the military, and contributes to erosion of the space for popular participation and citizenship.

Obama should resist calls for an expansion of aid and emphasize the importance of respect for human rights and positive steps toward addressing the political roots of insurgencies.

These aren’t issues that can be resolved by outsiders, and a rapid increase in foreign aid could only reinforce unaccountable military and civilian institutions. Better and more aid should be on the agenda. As the International Crisis Group noted earlier this year, “It is not additional funds that are needed so much as creative thinking about how existing allocations could be used to maximum benefit.”

Some U.S. foreign aid, especially in Mindanao, has supported valuable research and monitoring efforts on various aspects of violence in the Philippines, as well as the reintegration of former MNLF combatants and other development projects. But as a 2008 review of the impact of USAID’s programs in Mindanao on conflict and peace noted, “these good but relatively limited programs have had little impact in changing the dominant patron-client patterns and electoral violence which persist in local politics. Little evidence is found that citizens are being helped to organize to work together through government/civil society mechanisms on shared local interests, or to advocate for Mindanao’s policy and other needs as a whole region.” In short, the political roots of violence and conflict remain only partially addressed.

The Obama administration should go beyond conditionality sanctions to actually providing resources to the Commission on Human Rights and other agencies that have demonstrated a commitment to combating impunity but lack resources. The targets of such efforts can be the perpetrators of violence against civilians, be they military, political elites, or non-state actors. The Commission on Human Rights, for example, remains an important but understaffed organization. U.S. assistance could be redirected from security assistance to aid in building the capacity to expanding is monitoring and investigations. Strengthening the political impact of the Commission’s work will likely only come from changes in Philippine politics, however.

The United States should support such efforts and lead by example in terms of making its own aid more transparent and accountable, especially those aimed at the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao and projects in lumad (indigenous) areas. Such programs should strengthen the participatory nature of these programs in ways that creating political space for citizen engagement and action. This would require altering the balance of assistance to the Philippines from the focus on security and military assistance to a focus on increasing the role for civil society organizations and participatory governance mechanisms.

The Obama administration should “walk the talk” on democratic and accountable governance by making U.S foreign aid the cutting edge of transparency, accountability, and participation, ensuring that U.S. military assistance doesn’t strengthen unaccountable and repressive military institutions and political elites. These would be valuable first steps for a new relationship.

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