By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

HUMAN rights groups on Sunday urged the Biden administration to exert pressure on Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. to uphold human rights.

Mr. Marcos should pave the way for the release of former Senator Leila M. de Lima, one of ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s fiercest critics, from jail and cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in its investigation of the tough-talking leader’s deadly drug war, they said.

Mr. Marcos left Manila on Sunday for Washington, where he will meet with US President Joseph R. Biden at the White House on May 1.

He will also meet with some members of the US Congress during his four-day visit that Philippine officials have said is aimed at reaffirming the special relationship between the long-time allies.

“Though their meeting will highlight socioeconomic cooperation and joint commitment to enhance defense and security cooperation, it will be an opportunity for each state to discuss what actions have been made and concrete steps to be taken to fulfill human rights obligations of the Philippine government,” the Philippine Alliance for Human Rights Advocates said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

The alliance noted that no less than Mr. Biden himself had promised to promote accountability for governments that abuse human rights when the US was elected to the Human Rights Council 2021 for a three-year term.

“Now is the chance for President Biden to put values before interest.”

Mr. Marcos will be joined by officials from the Justice, Defense and Foreign Affairs departments during his US trip.

In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity said the release of Ms. De Lima and rejoining the ICC “should be of utmost priority in terms of addressing government accountability in the Philippines.”

Ms. De Lima has been in jail since her arrest in 2017 on drug trafficking charges, which critics and European lawmakers have said are baseless and meant to harass her.

Since April 2022, some of the key witnesses have recanted their testimonies against Ms. De Lima, saying they were coerced by former government officials.

“The release of Senator De Lima would strengthen the country’s position on respect for human rights and the judicial process because many of the witnesses against her have recanted,” Philip Arnold “Randy” P. Tuaño, dean of the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government, said in a Messenger chat. “There is no more basis to hold her in government custody.”

Ms. De Lima was arrested amid an investigation by a Senate committee of alleged atrocities committed in Mr. Duterte’s drug war, which is now the subject of an ICC probe.

“It is important to raise these concerns since the Philippines is a state party to several international treaties including the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights,” the human rights alliance said. “The Philippines assumes obligations and duties under international law to respect and protect human rights.”

Mr. Tuaño said the US has several laws that allow its government to withhold foreign assistance to countries that have poor democratic and human rights records.

“Civil society organizations would be able to push the agenda for greater political participation by asking the American government to just follow these laws,” he said.

Human Rights Watch in a separate statement noted that since Mr. Marcos took office in June, Washington has significantly increased assistance to the Philippines “primarily through defense spending.”

“In the past, the US government had conditioned military assistance for the Philippines on the government making progress on holding human rights abusers accountable,” it said on its website on April 27.

“Assistance has now grown, however, even as the Philippine government has failed to bring those responsible for serious abuses to justice.”

The human rights alliance said Mr. Biden had been criticized for failing to discuss human rights when he met leaders of several Middle Eastern countries in July 2022.

“He was criticized during his visit and for apparently ingratiating himself with leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel, close allies of the US, despite the killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in May 2022 and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018,” it said.

“I really do not expect the Biden government to give in to the calls of US senators to pressure the Philippine government to drop charges against former Senator De Lima,” said Arjan P. Aguirre, who teaches political science at the Ateneo de Manila.

“Biden has just announced his plan for reelection and he intends to politicize the tension with China for this purpose.”

Mr. Aguirre said the US would likely use the ill-gotten wealth case of the Marcos family and human rights issues with his predecessor “as a leverage to get the nod of the Philippine government.” 

“The US government will guarantee that these issues won’t be raised against the Marcos government in the near future. This may be understood as strategic blackmailing.”

Mr. Marcos in his departure speech said he would meet with American business leaders to “further promote trade and investment opportunities in the Philippines.”

He and his economic team would be joined by key private sector leaders in exploring business opportunities to help boost economic growth, he said.

He said he would seek opportunities in the semiconductor industry, critical minerals, renewable and clean energy including nuclear, and infrastructure projects.

“One of my priorities for this visit is to push for greater economic engagement.”

Meanwhile, environmentalists urged Mr. Marcos to take the lead in demanding climate action and reparations from the US, one of the world’s top polluters, during his meeting with his American counterpart.

“We want to see the Philippine president putting the climate agenda on top of his agenda,” Greenpeace Philippines Country Director Lea Guerrero said by telephone.

“We also want to see him calling for payment from the US government for loss and damages, opening that topic with Biden and making sure that they are aware that the Philippines is going to call for compensation not just from the US government but also from fossil fuel companies that operate in the US,” she added.

Ms. Guerrero said it’s an opportunity for Mr. Marcos to represent small countries vulnerable to climate change during his meeting with Mr. Biden.

“We should be at the point where climate finance comes in the form of grants from the world’s top polluters, yet our president seems content with the complete lack of accountability from the US for its emissions that have caused climate change in our country in the first place,” Kalikasan spokesman Jon Bonifacio said in a Messenger chat.

“It also makes little sense to talk of the urgency of climate change on the one hand, yet encourage the expansion of the US military — the single-largest polluting institution in the world — in our country on the other.”

The Center for Energy, Ecology and Development asked Mr. Marcos to never betray his climate agenda by securing usual deals on gas and other fossil fuels.

“There should be no confusion as to what kinds of agreements the president should be demanding: that the US, as a historical climate polluter, deliver the financing it owes climate vulnerable countries like ours to advance our energy transition and put climate adaptation and mitigation efforts,” center Executive Director Gerry Arrances said in a Messenger chat.

“If he comes home with deals for more gas and other fossil fuels as he did in Japan, then the president exposes his climate agenda as ultimately nonexistent and recklessly chaining Filipinos to a catastrophic climate future,” he said.