Protecting the Boys

I haven’t felt in the mood for blogging lately but after reading about the release of a US Marine charged with raping a 14-year old Okinawan girl, I’m reminded of this piece on a similar case in the Philippines, which I wrote a for a class a few months ago and never did anything with:

On December 4, 2006, Philippine courts sentenced U.S. marine Daniel Smith to 40 years in prison for raping a Filipina. The verdict was a dramatic victory for people seeking to hold American servicemen accountable for their crimes against civilian populations.

On December 29, 2006, the hopes raised by Smith’s conviction were shattered when the US Embassy removed him from Philippine custody.

Smith remains in the custody of the US Embassy in Manila while he appeals the verdict, causing widespread public outrage in the Philippines. The impulse to prevent Smith from languishing in an overcrowded, under-serviced prison while his case is resolved is understandable. But the “protect our boys” ethic that underlies it, which dictates that U.S. personnel abroad should invariably be shielded from local accountability, needs to be seriously reexamined.

In the Philippines, this case was clearly tied to US-Philippine military relations from the moment it hit the front pages. It was precisely this kind of crime -- and the lack of accountability that accompanied it -- that led to the expulsion of US Military bases from the Philippines in 1992.

After years of lobbying, the US military was allowed to return in 1999 under a new Visiting Forces Agreement. Among the key features of this agreement are provisions guaranteeing the Philippines greater power to try and punish American soldiers for serious crimes.

Smith’s trial was the first major test of the renegotiated agreement, and the guilty verdict gave Filipinos reason to believe that the era of American impunity had ended. Instead, within weeks of Smith’s conviction, the United States pressured the Philippine government to transfer Smith to American custody by threatening to cut aid and cancel joint military exercises.

Using the power of the state to shield Smith transformed his crime from an isolated incident into a statement of U.S. foreign policy. While asking the Philippines to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the war on terror, the United States effectively refused to acknowledge the Philippines’ equal right to protect its citizens, and undermined the very democratic institutions the war on terror is purported to protect.

America’s insistence on protecting a convicted rapist at the expense of Philippine sovereignty underscores an unequal partnership the Philippines, one of America’s staunchest allies in the war on terror, has every right to resent. On the anniversary of Smith’s conviction, protesters stormed the US Embassy in Manila calling for Smith’s return to local authorities and demanding the repeal of the Visiting Forces Agreement. As this call goes unheeded, resentment builds.

Filipinos are understandably upset by an ethos that "protects our boys" above all else. Shouldn't we be too?