Politics Analysis

Human rights takes back seat, as Australia rolls out red carpet for Marcos

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(Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr | World Economic Forum via Flickr)

The Australian Government's embracing of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr marks yet another instance of complicity in foreign human rights concerns, Chris Fitzgerald reports.

SOUTHEAST ASIAN leaders, diplomats and officials flew into Melbourne last week to attend a three-day summit celebrating the 50th anniversary of Australia’s relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

This is the largest gathering of world leaders in Australia since 2018 when former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hosted a similar summit in Sydney. Outside of usual ASEAN summits, this is Australia’s best chance to highlight regional and global issues.

Much has changed since 2018, with the region confronted with new challenges and new leaders looking to make their mark on the region. One of these leaders is Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who became the 17th President of the Philippines in June 2022. Marcos Jr was elected in a landslide, winning almost 60 per cent of the vote — the country’s first majority election victory in decades.

Marcos Jr is undeniably the darling of the summit and has been in high demand, speaking at several engagements and being interviewed by ABC 7.30 host Sarah Ferguson last Monday. This comes after the President addressed a joint sitting of Parliament in Canberra earlier in the month — a sign of his importance and the deepening relationship between the Philippines and Australia.

This is not surprising. The President comes to Australia having taken a hard-line stance on Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and has sought closer ties with Australia to confront “common challenges” — a euphemism for China’s belligerence, as well as issues like climate change.

These topics have been a consistent theme for Marcos Jr this week, telling a Lowy Institute-hosted event at the State Library of Victoria last Monday that they should be of primary concern for both countries.

This has been welcome news in Canberra, with many who see the President as a popular, charismatic and straight-talking leader they can do business with. It is a world away from his predecessor – Rodrigo Duterte – described as the “Donald Trump of Asia” who sought closer ties with Beijing and unleashed a deadly drug war in the Philippines, killing thousands of Filipinos.

But, while Marcos Jr has been keen to discuss several important issues, he has actively avoided answering questions on his questionable human rights record and his family's dark history.

The President was elected on a promise of greater respect for human rights and ending his predecessor's brutal drug war. But, after almost two years in power, neither has occurred.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports there have been numerous cases of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances of politicians, journalists and human rights' defenders.

The drug war has also continued, with HRW finding 'no evidence' of a policy change. In fact, the University of the Philippines Dahas program found that more Filipinos were killed in Marcos Jr’s first six months in power than in Duterte’s final six months in office. This year, there have already been 58 drug-related killings.

Marcos Jr has also avoided questions over his family’s history. His father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr, was President and dictator of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986 — infamous for severe human rights abuses including mass arrests, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

Marcos Sr was eventually ousted in a popular uprising in 1986, with the family fleeing into exile with an estimated stolen $15 billion and almost $5 billion in unpaid taxes.

There have been attempts to raise these issues with the President. Protesters gathered outside of the Melbourne Town Hall and Exhibition and Convention Centre on Monday night to raise the human rights records of ASEAN leaders, including Marcos Jr.

This comes after Greens Senator Janet Rice was ejected from Parliament last week for raising a sign saying “stop the human rights abuses” when the President was addressing members of Parliament.

7.30’s Sarah Ferguson also had an admirable go on Monday night in a pre-recorded interview, asking the President about the family's ill-gotten wealth and whether the President would want the money “back in the hands of the Filipino people”.

Marcos Jr responded dismissively and with laughter, claiming the “assertions” have been “shown to be untrue” and that the allegations were “propaganda”. This is consistent with Marcos Jr’s continued attempts at home and abroad to bat away any criticism and whitewash his family’s history.

Disappointingly, the Albanese Government has been silent on these issues. The President’s speech at the State Library of Victoria – where Government ministers were in attendance – was focused on China and followed by soft-ball questions, with not a single one relating to human rights or his family’s history.

The Government censuring Senator Rice for her protest last week also speaks to a desire to not rock the boat or raise sensitive issues with its celebrated guest.

Befriending autocrats and populists is not new for Australian governments, nor is it new to avoid delicate issues like human rights abuses. The Albanese Government is also entitled to focus on legitimate political and economic concerns such as China, climate change and trade. These issues are important and ASEAN summits are a good place to raise them.

But this comes at a troubling time for human rights in Australia, with the Government falling over itself to avoid criticising another ally – Israel – over clear war crimes in the Gaza Strip.

Last year, United Nations expert Francesca Albanese told the Government that its reluctance to criticise Israel was “not only unacceptable, it's dangerous”. Criticism of the Government over Israel has only worsened after it decided to freeze funding to UNRWA based on Israeli allegations that Penny Wong admitted she had not seen.

There are double standards at play here. The Government has not shied away from condemning abuses by other countries like Myanmar and Russia but appears incapable – or disinterested – in applying this criticism consistently to Australia’s allies.

Penny Wong continuously talks about the importance of upholding the international “rules-based order”, referring to international law and human rights. But it appears this is reserved for Australia’s enemies, not its friends.

While the Philippines is an increasingly important ally in an increasingly complicated and tense region, it should not see human rights taking a backseat. This means having difficult conversations with leaders like Marcos Jr about legitimate human rights concerns.

It is not a good look to rely on protesters and the media to raise human rights concerns while Canberra rolls out the red carpet for populists, despots and strongmen, even if they are charismatic.

If the rules-based order is so important, the Albanese Government needs to mean it and apply it consistently. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Chris Fitzgerald is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne, writing on political, legal and human rights issues in the Asia-Pacific region. You can follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisFitzMelb.

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