"We Demand Justice": People's Tribunal Finds Marcos, Duterte and Biden Guilty of War Crimes

The Philippine government, with U.S. support, has engaged in violent, extralegal repression of activists, the tribunal found. The verdict is one step toward justice.

Wade Phillips, Chet Baughman and Azadeh Shahshahani

Eufemia Cullamat and Jeany Hayahay were sworn in collectively before the Internation People's Tribunal jury in Brussels. Both testified on the violent repression faced by indigenous Lumad communities in their struggle for ancestral lands in Mindanao, Philippines. Photo courtesty of G. MERCADO / MALAYA MOVEMENT SF

On May 18th, 2024, the International People’s Tribunal found the U.S.-backed Philippine government guilty of human rights violations and war crimes against the Filipino people. 

Hundreds gathered in Brussels to hear two days of harrowing testimony, mostly from victims and their families. Witnesses described the willful murder and torture of civilians, arbitrary arrests and indiscriminate bombings of houses and schools, among other atrocities committed by the Philippine government in its ongoing armed conflict with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), a revolutionary group fighting for genuine democracy and self determination for the Filipino people.

“We want to stop the pattern of killings, abductions and fake surrenders."

We want to stop the pattern of killings, abductions and fake surrenders,” said environmental activist Jonila Castro, one of the 15 tribunal witnesses who provided disturbing testimony. Last year, Castro was abducted and tortured by the Philippine military. We want the government to stop equating activists as combatants and to surface all missing activists,” she added. We demand to hold state forces accountable.”

For survivors like Castro, the International People’s Tribunal is one step in a long and arduous process for justice.

For survivors like Castro, the International People’s Tribunal is one step in a long and arduous process for justice. It’s a step that very well may lead to further repression for speaking out. But as victims of state violence by their own government, the tribunal offers an alternative path to justice and an opportunity to both shed international light onto the crisis and address the abuses — not only for themselves but for the millions of Filipinos who continue to suffer from harassment, forced displacement and foreign military occupation. 

Tribunal charges were brought specifically against the U.S. government, President Joe Biden, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. The verdict comes as Biden also receives continued criticism and a string of resignations in protest of Israel’s genocide of Palestinians in Gaza — another place where the United States has funded and furthered rampant human rights violations. An international panel of five jurors, including former legal counsel to Nelson Mandela, Lennox Hinds, presided over the quasi-judicial proceedings. After the ruling, findings were delivered to the International Criminal Court and other bodies concerned with the deteriorating human rights conditions in the country. The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) particularly is set to hold forums on the verdict and findings in the United States on July 8 and globally on July 11th

While the NDFP and the U.S.-backed Philippine government have engaged in peace negotiations for several decades, the Duterte and Marcos administrations have more recently opposed and stalled these talks. Instead, according to the verdict, the Philippine government has engaged in violent, extralegal repression of the armed struggle and even killings of NDFP peace negotiators — all with support and direction from the United States. 

The Philippines is the largest recipient of U.S. military funding in the Indo-Pacific region.

Expert witnesses agreed that the NDFP’s anti-imperialist struggle threatens U.S. geopolitical and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific.” The Philippines is the largest recipient of U.S. military funding in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor and expert witness Marjorie Cohn elaborated on U.S. collaboration with the Duterte and Marcos regimes, stating that the Philippine government has used the U.S. War on Terror as an excuse to escalate its generations-long war against individuals and organizations who opposed the policies of the government.” 

Cohn asserted that at the behest of the United States,” the Philippine government implements the U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, a foreign military strategy that manifests as harsh repression of civil liberties, intimidation of activists and murder. This repression often starts with red-tagging” individuals as terrorists or members of so-called communist terrorist organizations. Targets of this state violence have often been lawyers, labor organizers, environmentalists, peace consultants, humanitarian aid workers and journalists.

One of many egregious cases examined during the tribunal was the massacre of the Fausto family in the Buenavista municipality of Quezon. Billy and Emelda Fausto, leaders of the Farmworkers Association (also known as BABICAFA), had dedicated their lives to fighting for reforms that would give peasants greater access to farmland. Billy and Emelda were murdered in their home in June 2023, along with their two sons, Ben (15) and Ravin (12), after facing years of harassment, red-tagging and intimidation by the Philippine armed forces. 

We demand justice for the killing of our family. They were innocent, and I suspect no one else but the military themselves,” said surviving daughter Emile Fausto in her witness testimony for the people’s tribunal.

Lead juror Lennox Hinds, former US counsel for Nelson Mandela, noted that the evidence presented was “credible and consistent.” Photo courtesy of G. MERCADO / MALAYA MOVEMENT SF

Another notable tribunal witness was Brandon Lee, a Chinese American human rights volunteer, media correspondent and paralegal with the Ifugao Peasant Movement and Cordillera Peoples Alliance — organizations in the Philippine island of Luzon that defend Indigenous people’s rights and oppose corporate land grabbing. Lee was red-tagged and labeled an enemy of the state” because of his work alongside peasants to prevent and document human rights violations from 2010 to 2019. After facing years of intimidation and surveillance by the Philippine police and armed forces, Lee was shot four times outside of his home in August 2019 and survived only after receiving multiple spinal cord surgeries. 

"Despite the fact that I can’t walk or use my hands anymore, I will still use my voice to help the Filipino people.”

Despite repeated requests to officials in the Philippines and the United States, there has been no thorough investigation or justice served for the extrajudicial assassination attempt apart from the May 2024 tribunal. When asked how the shooting affected him, Lee replied, “[The incident] made me a quadriplegic. … Despite the fact that I can’t walk or use my hands anymore, I will still use my voice to help the Filipino people.”

Across the two days of testimony, witnesses described the dire conditions for workers, human rights organizers and indigenous peoples. The Lumad communities continue to experience militarization, killings of our relatives, destruction of our ancestral lands and worsening poverty,” said Eufemia Cullamat, a Filipina farmer from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Cullamat is the second Manobo tribe member, a group indigenous to Mindanao, to serve on the Philippine House of Representatives. 

She shared testimony on numerous killings of her family members, including her daughter Jevelyn in 2020, whose remains were desecrated and photographed as a trophy by members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. When asked why communities like hers experienced such extreme violation and oppression, Eufemia Cullamat responded, It is because we actively defend our ancestral domain against widespread and destructive mining operations that rob us of our land, life and rights.”

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The multinational mining industry is a potent reason why the United States prizes the Philippines: It remains one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world with significant amounts of gold, nickel, copper and chromite, among others. As of 2013, a Global Business Reports publication on mining in the Philippines estimated that the archipelago contains more than $840 billion worth of untapped mineral wealth.” And the exploitation of the country’s untapped resources by foreign corporations has intensified greatly since the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, which allowed fully foreign-owned mining operations and exploration permits. 

The case of nickel mining, in particular, sheds light on the U.S. government’s continued military ties with the Marcos family: The U.S. market demand for nickel is set to increase dramatically in the next twenty years as a key component of electrical vehicles.

While some industry leaders bemoan the relative underdevelopment of mining operations in the Philippines and regulatory constraints, many others, including Indigenous groups, have pointed out the devastation of local communities and the environment caused by corporate mining.

The Philippines has long been considered one of the most dangerous countries in Asia for land and environmental defenders. Activists opposing corporate destruction of the environment are often met with violent repression from the police and military. Photo by Jes Aznar via Getty Images

Despite local resistance, the United States has recently expanded its military bases in the Philippines in response to growing mineral demand and anti-imperialist struggles in the Asia Pacific. And in April 2024, the United States proposed a dramatic increase in military funding via the Philippines Enhanced Resilience Act (PERA), which would send $500 million per year to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, totaling up to $2.5 billion through 2029. This appropriation has been proposed by members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations with no mention of the U.S. counterinsurgency programs’ direct role in human rights violations or the bloody history of U.S. colonization in the Philippines, signaling a continued disregard for the lives of the Filipino people. The United States’ support for these abuses can’t be separated from its longstanding economic interests in the Philippines, dating back to the initial U.S. colonization of the country at the end of the 19th century.

The Philippine government and military, as well as the United States, must continue to be scrutinized and held accountable for atrocities in the Philippines. Instead of the PERA bill, U.S. elected officials should pass the Philippine Human Rights Act, which would limit U.S. military aid to the Philippines while human rights abuses persist. 

Our imperative is clear: Anti-war and anti-imperialist advocates around the world must demand a reduction of the U.S. military footprint in the Philippines. The path for lasting peace in the Asia Pacific is the support of genuine Philippine sovereignty — not the continuation of abuses and U.S. colonial influence. We must heed the words of tribunal juror and Basque parliament member Julen Azuaga Gumuzio who declared in the ruling that these gross violations of human rights law deserve our utmost condemnation.” 

More information on the International People’s Tribunal verdict and testimony can be found in archives available at peo​plestri​bunal​.net. The U.S. chapter of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP-US) will host a webinar on the tribunal on Monday, July 8, at 5:30 p.m. PST / 8:30 p.m. EST, followed by the conclusion of an ICHRP global series covering the tribunal on Thursday, July 11, at 6:00 p.m. PST. 

Wade Phillips is a rank-and-file member of Teamsters 117 and an organizer with the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) chapter in Seattle.

Chet Baughman is a community organizer who works with asylum seekers in the Seattle area and is an organizer with Tanod Lupa, a member organization of Friends of the Filipino People in Struggle.

Azadeh Shahshahani is legal and advocacy director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild. She tweets @ashshahahani and you can read her work at In These Times here.

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