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2 US lawmakers object to Balangiga bells return to PHL citing rights woes

Two American lawmakers have objected the return of the Balangiga bells to the Philippines due to alleged human rights violations committed under the government's campaign against illegal drugs.

In a letter to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Democratic Rep. James McGovern and Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren, co-chairs of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) asked not to continue the transfer of the Balangiga bells as they also expressed "deepest concerns with the human rights record" of the government of the Philippines.

McGovern and Hultgren said that the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 allows for the transfer of the Balangiga bells back to the Philippines if certain criteria are met which include that "the transfer is in the national security interests of the United States."

"We recognize and appreciate that the intent of the provision is to resolve in an appropriate way a long-standing, highly symbolic dispute between the United States and the Philippines...[W]e ask that as you determine the national security interests of the United States in this situation, you consider as part of that equation the major human rights violations now facing the Philippines' government," the co-chairs wrote.

"We urge that you do not provide certification for he returning of the bells until the Philippines's government makes clear, measurable efforts to stop extra-judicial killings in their 'war on drugs'," they added.

Republican Senator John Barrasso had also opposed the return of Balangiga bells to the Philippines. He had questioned incoming Under Secretary of State for Management Eric Ueland during the Senate nomination hearing on his plan to raise the rights of US on Balangiga bells which he described as an "important war memorial" that holds significance for many Americans especially veterans.

Barrasso said that they have sent a letter to US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raising concerns on the supposed pronouncement of US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim "pledging to dismantle the Wyoming war memorial."

"In Wyoming, we have strong tradition of never forgetting the sacrifices of our brave men and women. So the letter asks the President to direct the Department of Defense and Department of state to cease any efforts to deconstruct existing war and veterans memorial," he said.

"My question to you (Ueland) is...will you raise this issue with this member of our diplomatic corps and share with him the importance of protecting our nations' veterans memorial," he added.

Ueland, for his part, pledged that he will do "everything" he is capable of to raise the matter if once given the change to serve as the Under Secretary for Management.

In September last year, Kim said that Washington is "deeply committed" to return the bells but added that there were "issues" needed to be threshed out first.

The Balangiga bells were seized from a church in Balangiga, Eastern Samar more than a century ago by the United States Army as war booty following the attack on dozens of US troops during the Filipino-American war.

Two of the three bells are presently displayed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming as part of a memorial to 46 US troops killed by Filipino insurgents in 1901.

Meanwhile, the third bell is with a US Army regiment in South Korea.

Duterte, during his second State of the Nation Address, demanded the return of Balangiga bells to the Philippines.

Duterte had threatened to ban McGovern and Hultgern from coming to Manila after they criticized Trump for inviting him to visit the United States. —LBG, GMA News