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US-Backed Philippine Government Committed War Crimes, People’s Tribunal Finds

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Human Rights and Global Wrongs

Gaza is not the only place where Joe Biden’s government is aiding and abetting war crimes. Following a hearing on May 17-18, the International People’s Tribunal on War Crimes in the Philippines found Philippine President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr., former President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, U.S. President Joe Biden, and the U.S. government guilty of war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law against the Filipino people.

The jurors for the tribunal included: Lennox Hinds, Emeritus Professor of Law at Rutgers University and former legal counsel for the African National Congress; Suzanne Adely, President of the National Lawyers Guild (U.S.); Severine De Laveleye, member of the Chamber of Representatives of Belgium; Julen Arzuaga Gumuzio, member of the Basque Parliament; and Archbishop Joris Vercammen, former member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.

Convened by the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and Friends of the Filipino People in Struggle, the tribunal heard chilling testimony from 15 witnesses, both in person and by video deposition. Documenting extensive violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, they delivered firsthand accounts of torture, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances and attacks on Indigenous communities who were defending their ancestral lands from plunder by mining and other corporations.

Eleven witnesses were victims, family members or colleagues of victims. Four, including me, testified as expert witnesses or resource persons. I provided expert testimony on the right to self-determination, national liberation movements and violations of international humanitarian law.

The tribunal ruled that the defendants committed:

willful killing (murder) of civilians and civilian objects; indiscriminate means and methods of warfare; forced displacement of the civilian population; impeding humanitarian aid intended for civilians; acts or threats of violence aimed at spreading terror among civilians; willful killing of New People’s Army (NPA) fighters already out of combat; torture, and other forms of cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment; outrages upon personal dignity and desecration of bodies of slain NPA fighters; abduction and enforced disappearance; arbitrary arrest and detention; red-tagging (in which targeted individuals are “tagged” as communists or terrorists or both, notwithstanding their actual political beliefs or affiliations); and threats, harassment and intimidation.

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines Is Waging a War of National Liberation

“The National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) is waging a war of national liberation through its armed component, the New People’s Army (NPA), in the exercise of the Filipino people’s inherent right of self-determination,” I testified to the tribunal. “The Philippine government, fully supported and enabled by the U.S. government, has engaged in violent repression of the Filipino people through counterinsurgency and ‘counterterrorism’ campaigns, and widespread violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.”

Julie de Lima, chairperson of the peace negotiating panel for the NDFP, testified that the NPA was established in 1969, at the beginning of the protracted war against the government’s semi-colonial, semi-feudal system. For almost four decades, the NDFP and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) have engaged in peace negotiations. The NDFP considers itself bound by international humanitarian law, including Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I to Geneva, according to De Lima.

De Lima stated that the NPA, a “disciplined national fighting force,” abides by international humanitarian law, protecting civilians and treating prisoners of war humanely. The government’s counterinsurgency program, on the other hand, draws no distinction between civilians and combatants. Several unarmed revolutionaries have been murdered, even killed in custody, she noted. More than 100 unarmed civilians — hors de combat (no longer combatants) — were killed from 2017-2022, in violation of international humanitarian law.

“This initiative of holding an independent (International People’s Tribunal) as a war crime tribunal is a most welcome endeavor. Like the victims, their family and friends, we look for different ways to seek justice for HR (human rights) and IHL (international humanitarian law) violations,” De Lima added.

“The NDFP’s armed struggle against the Philippine government is a war of national liberation for self-determination under Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions,” I testified, “which says that ‘armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist régimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination’ are protected by the Geneva Conventions.”

Atrocities Committed by the Philippine Government

The jurors found that “counterinsurgency operations by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) resulted in the deaths of scores of civilians, including the massacre of entire families, even children, members of rural and indigenous communities, and land rights defenders, and activists.” The GRP tried to “cover up these extrajudicial killings by falsely claiming that the victims were all NPA fighters, by engaging in a campaign of what is widely known in the Philippines as red-tagging and other forms of disinformation and vilification, and by planting evidence on the crime scenes, such as weapons and paraphernalia purportedly belonging to the NPA.”

“It can be concluded, therefore, that the U.S. government played an indispensable role in these atrocities, making it complicit in the IHL (international humanitarian law) and human rights violations committed against the Filipino people.”

Witness Ariel Casilao, president of Anakpawis Party List, testified that Randall Echanis, a long-time peasant activist, was an unarmed NDFP peace consultant who contributed significantly to agrarian reform and rural development. On August 10, 2020, Echanis was brutally murdered as he slept in his home. The autopsy revealed 40 stab wounds and a fractured skull. Nearly four years later, no one has been held accountable for his killing.

Brandon Lee, a U.S. citizen turned activist in Ifugao province, was threatened, surveilled and shot by suspected state agents, which left him quadriplegic. Lee testified that on March 25, 2014, William Bogotti, an activist with the Ifugao Peasant Movement (IPM), was killed after assisting at a hearing for political prisoners. Since 2015, 10 members of IPM, including Lee, have received death threats and suffered political vilification and red-tagging.

Former parliamentarian Eufemia Cullamat testified that her daughter Jevilyn Cullamat, a member of NPA, was killed on November 28, 2020, by special forces of the AFP. The military deliberately arranged her body and placed a gun on her chest to make it look like she held it. She was displayed like a trophy by soldiers lined up behind her holding NDFP, NPA and Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) flags. Eufemia said that Lumad communities (Indigenous peoples in the southern Philippines) experience militarization, the killing of their relatives, destruction of their ancestral lands and worsening poverty. Her uncle, Datu Jovillo Sinzo, was shot by the AFP as he was fleeing and beaten in the arms and thighs, resulting in multiple fractures. Emerito Samarca, executive director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development Lumad school, was tortured and killed in the faculty house. These victims were killed “because they advocated for our rights to ancestral lands and self-determination and to develop our community without harming the environment,” Eufemia told the jurors. “We hope the tribunal will reach a guilty verdict to bring justice to the killing of my daughter and other IP (Indigenous peoples) victims of state violence,” she added.

Marison Diaz testified about the killing of her father Maurito Diaz as part of the Tumandok Massacre in December 2020. Nine tribal leaders, including Maurito, a farmer and elder in the Tumandok community, were killed by the Philippine police and military because they “strongly opposed the mega dam project.” She noted, “My father didn’t want to leave our land because to him we will not survive elsewhere. Our ancestral land is his life. The dam will cause widespread damage to many communities. So with other people they opposed the dam and encouraged others to do so.” The military and police said the Tumandok community fought back. “But in reality they did not fight back. My father was sick. He didn’t possess a gun, only a bolo knife,” Marison said.

Witness Jeany Rose Hayahay is a spokesperson for Save Our Schools Network, a network of child-focused NGOs, church-based groups, academics, and other stakeholders who advocate for children’s rights and the right to self-determination. She testified about the February 20, 2022, massacre of volunteer teachers and medical staff of the Lumad schools. The communities that have abundant mineral resources have been deprived of basic social services including health and education. “Foreign and national mining companies go to these communities, presenting documents written in a language they don’t understand, and they sign away their land under the guise of receiving goods,” Hayahay told the jurors. “The communities have asked for help with literacy. We had built 100 schools across Mindanao, teaching children how to read and write and protect their rights. We are unarmed, all my students and colleagues. We received attacks under the guise of counterinsurgency. They killed four of my students, saying they were ‘child warriors,’ combatants of the NPA.” She added, “We see these schools as the highest expression of resistance against those mining companies.”

Jonila Castro testified that she and her colleague Jhed Tamano were kidnapped by the military in September 2023, interrogated for 17 days, subjected to “psychological torture” and forced to sign false statements saying they weren’t abducted by government forces, but voluntarily surrendered as former armed rebels affiliated with the CPP. They later recanted those coerced confessions at a press conference.

Hailey Pecayo is a human rights defender with Karapatan, an alliance of individuals and member organizations that aims to promote the protection of human rights in the Philippines. “Contrary to the complaints of the military,” she testified, “I am not a combatant, I am a human rights defender and a civilian.” The military charged her by criminal complaint with being an NPA combatant, attempted murder, and controlling an explosive device — on dates when she was elsewhere. On one date, she was helping a community of more than 5,000 families in Batangas who were facing demolition of their homes for a government development project. On the other date, she was attending a rally in Manila when President Marcos Jr. gave his first State of the Nation Address. Although the cases were dismissed for lack of evidence, the military meant to make an example of her to dissuade further organizing.

“I believe this tribunal will come up with a resolution to convict our perpetrators,” Pecayo told the jurors. “(I am here) not only to seek justice for us victims, but also to end impunity in our country.”

The jurors determined that “the AFP carried out indiscriminate attacks through airstrikes and shelling in areas with civilian infrastructure, households, and schools. The AFP used heavy ordnance that, by their nature, indiscriminately cause damage to the target area and result in superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering for any person caught in the blast zone.”

“These bombing campaigns threatened and terrorized civilians and destroyed the natural environment on which local communities depend for their livelihoods,” the jurors concluded. “Heavy and incessant bombardment led to the forced displacement of more than 500,000 people nationwide under the Duterte administration and the first two years of the Marcos Jr. administration.”

The Philippine Government Is a “Puppet Government of the United States”

The GRP is a “puppet government of the United States,” De Lima testified.

Using the Philippines as a pawn in its strategy to maintain U.S. hegemony in the region, the U.S. government has designated the Philippines a major non-NATO ally, a “partner” in its “war on terror” and a link in its “first island chain” aimed at containing China. Pursuant to its “pivot to Asia,” the U.S. has expanded its number of military bases in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Philippine government is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the Asia-Pacific region. Since 2015, it has received $1.14 billion worth of equipment and training, over $1 billion in weapons sales, as well as $128 million to build U.S. military facilities. In addition, thousands of U.S. troops have been deployed to the Philippines to train the armed forces of the Philippines. Thousands of U.S. soldiers participated in joint military exercises in April 2024.

“Maintaining a U.S.-controlled regime in the Philippines and suppressing efforts by the Filipino people to assert their right of self-determination is essential for the United States to preserve its dominance and to counter any threat in the region,” the jurors found. This “would not have been possible without the direction, arms, and training provided by the U.S. government. It can be concluded, therefore, that the U.S. government played an indispensable role in these atrocities, making it complicit in the IHL (international humanitarian law) and human rights violations committed against the Filipino people.”

The findings of this tribunal are not legally binding. But, as I told the jurors, “peoples’ tribunals, while essentially political in nature, can serve as alternative fora, and provide a peoples’ record for future litigation, both nationally and internationally. For example,” I said, “after the 2009 Peoples’ Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange, in which I served as a judge, a French-Vietnamese woman filed a lawsuit in 2014 against the chemical companies who manufactured and sold dioxin used in Agent Orange that the U.S. military sprayed on Vietnam during the American War there.” Although Tran To Nga lost at the trial level, her appeal is pending in a French court.

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