Closer scrutiny of human rights in the Phl

The United Nations wouldn’t just let matters stay as they have been for so long.

And, within and outside the UN, there are converging demands for an “on-the-ground” international investigation into the continuing human rights violations (HRVs) under the Duterte administration.

Updating her comprehensive report last June on the dire human rights situation in the Philippines, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet urged the UN Human Rights Council to stay the course in pursuing the Duterte government’s accountability for the extrajudicial killings and other HRVs across the country.

Addressing the 45th session of the UNHRC last Monday, Bachelet said her office continues to work with the Philippine government, the Commission on Human Rights, civil society and the UN system to “develop follow-up actions” to her June report. Composed of 47 nations elected to it, the Council had mandated Bachelet to present her report at the 44thsession last June.

She continued to focus concern on two aspects of the situation: 1) the continued reports of drug-related killings “by both police and vigilantes, including during COVID-related restrictions on the movement [of people]” and 2) the “harassment, threats and violence against journalists, activists and critics; the passage of anti-terrorism legislation with many problematic provisions” and Duterte’s announced intention to reinstate the death penalty.

On drug-related killings, Bachelet noted that Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra had informed the UNHRC in June that a review would begin into internal police investigations of 5,655 anti-illegal drug operations where deaths occurred. “We are seeking details from the government so we can advise and assess the review panel’s scope, process and efficacy,” she said, indicating no positive response yet.

“However, beyond this initial process,” she emphasized, “there is clearly an urgent need to revoke the policies that continue to result in killings and other (HRVs), to bring to justice the perpetrators, to halt the use of rhetoric inciting violence against people who use or sell drugs.”

Bachelet enjoined the UNHRC to remain on top of the situation in the Philippines and to support continued monitoring and reporting, and technical cooperation that will implement the June report’s recommendations. Pursuing accountability is important, she asserted.

There were other country situations outlined in Bachelet’s report. Amid the CoOVID-19 global health crisis, which has “collided with many slower and more entrenched political, social and economic crises around the world,” she saw “important opportunities for [the UN] to assist States to devise human rights-based action that can de-escalate tensions, support sustainable development and preserve people’s well-being.”

The “multiple underlying fractures” that are highlighted in the COVID-19 pandemic, she pointed out, result “primarily from political processes that exclude people’s voices, as well as gaps in human rights protection.”

The day after Bachelet addressed the UNHRC, Denmark’s delegate – speaking on behalf of 29 member-nations in the Council – commented that her update “confirmed that the horrors identified in your June report on the Philippines continue apace.” He cited the following:

• that there are ongoing reports of extrajudicial killings in the context of the “war on drugs” that has a “widespread and systematic character”;

• that human rights defenders, activists, journalists and other critics of the government face increasing harassment and violence;

• that impunity for the security forces is persistent and obstacles to justice almost insurmountable; and

• that there is a need for the Council to remain active on the Philippines and pursue accountability.

Consequently, the Danish delegate assured Bachelet that the group of nations he spoke for support her recommendations to the Council. If the report is validated that 29 member-states share what he had stated, that should be cause for worry to the Duterte government: 29 member-states constitute a clear majority in the UNHRC.

Taking the same stand manifested by Denmark, 50 members of the European Parliament – coming from all the seven political groupings in that body – have signed a joint motion calling on the Duterte government to adopt and implement all Bachelet’s recommendations. The motion further asks the European Union and its 27 member-states to support the pending resolution at the UNHRC to establish an independent international probe into the alleged HRVs committed since 2016.

Last Monday, UN Special Rapporteur for extra-legal killings Agnes Callamard, speaking for several other special rapporteurs at another activity, recommended among others twin actions: for the Council to establish an on-the-ground international investigation into alleged HRVs in the Philippines, while continuing to monitor and report on the prevailing conditions; and for its member-states to “apply sanctions against Philippine government officials who [may be found] to have committed, have initiated or failed to investigate or prevent HRVs, including arbitrary killings.”

Then on Thursday, at least 19 international ecumenical church organizations signed a statement supporting both Bachelet’s recommendations and those of Callamard, as they vowed to help “in broadening international support and solidarity with the Filipino people.” “We will keep watch and bear witness with them,” the statement added.

Meantime, Callamard also called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor’s office, wherein two communications/complaints have been lodged in 2017 against President Duterte for “crimes against humanity,” to prioritize the completion of its preliminary examination on these complaints, mainly over large-scale killings.

We recall that in 2017, President Duterte barred Callamard from coming to the country to carry out her investigative mandate, accusing her of prejudging his government on alleged extrajudicial killings and other forms of HRVs. He even threatened to slap her if she insists on entering; the ICC chief prosecutor was similarly threatened. In his pique, he arbitrarily withdrew Philippine participation in the ICC. But that withdrawal action didn’t negate the preliminary examination that had already begun before then.

Commenting on the rising tide of international condemnation, presidential spokesman Harry Roque could only say: “As of now, all [domestic] institutions, whether it be the DOJ, the courts, the CHR and other remedies are available to those who claim to be victims of human rights violations. We are not in default of our obligation to provide victims with an adequate domestic remedy.”

Of course, that oft-repeated sterile, self-serving reply cannot stand close scrutiny.

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Published in Philippine Star
September 19, 2020

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