US VP Harris underscored respect for human rights, press freedom in meeting

MANILA, Philippines, November 23 ------ United States Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. about the “importance of respect for human rights,” the White House said in a statement.

“The Vice President underscored the importance of respect for human rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and the importance of bolstering democratic principles,” the White House said in a readout of Harris’ meeting with Marcos in Malacañang. Malacañang has yet to release details of the meeting, outside of press releases from the opening remarks.

After opening statements from Marcos and Harris, journalists – Manila-based media covering Malacañang and those embedded with the US Vice President – were escorted out of the meeting area. The note was a minor one – and the White House didn’t expound on the discussion unlike their notes on talks about defense, economic partnership, food security, and energy – but it comes just as the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) called on the Marcos administration to address violations and issues left behind by his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.

Human rights was also a point of discussion between Harris and former president Duterte’s daughter, Philippine Vice President Sara Duterte. “They also discussed our nations’ shared democratic values and the importance of respect for human rights,” said the White House’s readout from the vice presidents’ meeting. Notes released by the Philippines’ Office of the Vice President made no mention of human rights discussions. Recommendations from the UNHRC stem from the universal period review (UPR) of the Philippines’ human rights record.

At least 11 member-states called on the Marcos administration to address extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s bloody campaign against illegal drugs. The Philippine government has said that 6,252 individuals were killed in police operations from July 2016 to May 2022. Human rights groups estimate that up to 30,000 people were killed vigilante-style in the name of Duterte’s “war on drugs.” In its review, the UNHRC also urged the Philippines to pass legislation or amend laws that would protect journalists and human rights defenders in the Philippines. The Philippines is among the deadliest countries in the world for journalists.

Harris is in the Philippines for a quick visit, on the heels of her participation in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Bangkok. Both Harris and US President Joe Biden recently spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia to join various summits, as part of the superpower’s move to improve relations with the Indo-Pacific. Aside from meetings with Marcos and Duterte, Harris met with women leaders and activists in Manila. On her last day in the Philippines, she will visit Puerto Princesa in Palawan, a city close to the contested areas of the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines and the US are long-time treaty allies although relations have gone through ups and downs in recent years.

Ties with the US were tested during the Duterte administration, with the then-president overtly rejecting and openly lambasting traditional allies from the Global North, and even hurling expletives at then-US president Barack Obama and the US State Department over their criticism of his bloody drug war. Duterte announced a “pivot to China” during his administration. The new Marcos administration has been reestablishing Manila’s ties to Washington, with Marcos reiterating that he does “not see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States.”

But he has also kept close ties with China thus far, and is set to visit Beijing for a state visit in January 2023 – his first state visit outside Southeast Asia.