Just ten months in office and after announcing that “Change is coming!” the Duterte government appears bound to be lumped up with its predecessor administrations and indicted before the international community for continued human rights violations and worsening impunity.
Yes, that’s how it looks based on the summary presentation in a media briefing last Thursday by a network of 24 faith-based and human rights organizations and institutions. Since 2008, the Philippine UPR Watch has periodically appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva (Switzerland) to report on the state of human rights in the Philippines. UN member countries undergo this process, called Universal Periodic Review, or UPR, every four years.
The review scheduled on May 8 will cover the last four years of the Aquino administration and the first 10 months of the Duterte government. (The first two were held in May 2008 and May 2012.) Ten representatives of Philippine UPR Watch will orally backstop three joint reports and 15 individual stakeholder’s reports earlier submitted to the Council.
After the 2008 and 2012 reviews, UNHRC member governments had made certain recommendations, which the Philippine government committed to implement: the Arroyo administration pledged to implement 12 of 17 recommendations, and the Aquino administration, 63 out of 88 recommendations. In the latter case, 22 UNHRC member countries deplored the government’s “dismal record” in prosecuting HR violation cases and pressed President Aquino to take “decisive measures” to end the climate of impunity.
However, many of these recommendations have not been fully implemented and there has been no significant change in the overall human rights situation in the country, UPR Watch noted. In fact, it added, “the climate of impunity has worsened.”
In the network’s submission for the impending review, UPR Watch convenor Rev. Rex Reyes Jr. (who is general secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines) cited the following cases from January 2012 to June 2016 under Aquino’s watch: 249 extrajudicial killings, 501 frustrated extrajudicial killings, 17 enforced disappearances, 144 torture cases including eight with rape, 891 illegal arrests, and 191,029 cases of threat/harassment/intimidation of citizens by forces in authority. Numerous other instances involving communities and thousands of individuals have been documented by the human rights alliance Karapatan.
As for the Duterte government, Fr. Reyes cited the “extrajudicial killings under the pretext of the war on drugs” wherein thousands have been killed without due process, mostly from urban poor communities. And even as these drug-related killings hogged the headlines, Reyes pointed out, violations that are political in nature have continued unabated.
“There are no specific measures on the part of the [Duterte] government to actively protect the rights of human rights defenders,” he lamented. “The latter continue to be subject to threat and intimidation, trumped-up charges, red-baiting, enforced disappearance, and extrajudicial killing.” Thus far, Karapatan has documented 47 EJK cases, mostly of human rights defenders. Furthermore:
• In rural and hinterland communities, militarization continues under the Duterte administration’s counter-insurgency program, Oplan Kapayapaan, as additional AFP troops (20 infantry battalions) are being sent to Mindanao. “Communities suspected of supporting rebel groups have been targeted for aerial bombing, displacing thousands of civilians,” the Council will be told.
• The continued killing of lumad leaders and peasants by the AFP and its paramilitary groups from the Aquino to the Duterte governments, and the anti-drug campaign killings, “display the brazenness of human rights violations… and the climate of impunity that persists.”
• The failure to apprehend and prosecute the perpetrators of such crimes during the Arroyo and Aquino regimes “has greatly contributed to… and accentuated the brazenness and impunity under the present government.”
• There’s also no improvement in the sphere of economic, social and cultural rights. Education and health services and housing remain inaccessible (as shown in the public action by the homeless Kadamay members when they occupied vacant government housing units in Bulacan). A similar action by Hacienda Luisita farm workers, occupying and cultivating part of the estate previously sold but which remained idle, also shows the severity of peasant landlessness and poverty. And significant numbers of workers are still subject to contractualization, which Duterte had promised to end.
However, UPR Watch sees “a ray of hope.” It points to the progress so far achieved in the GRP-NDFP peace talks that resumed soon after Duterte took office in July 2016. Despite some obstacles and kinks along the way, these have been running relatively smoothly so far.
If the GRP truly abides – as it has repeatedly stated in writing – by the provisions of the CARHRIHL (Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law), Reyes said, “there is bound to be a marked improvement of the situation on the ground.” Moreover, he expressed high hopes that with the two parties’ agreeing on the free distribution of lands to landless peasants and farm workers as “the basic principle of genuine agrarian reform,” this could lead to other social, economic and cultural rights being similarly upheld.
This ray of hope, it needs pointing out, depends on how far the Duterte government is able to cobble together social and economic reforms that could disturb the existing system that favors the economic and political elite. It also depends on how he could effectively rein in the military, whose spokesman recently bluntly, arrogantly declared: “Our hitherto intent is to defeat the NPA (New People’s Army) by force and by peace negotiations – but not necessarily in that order.”
* * *
Published in The Philippine Star
April 29, 2017