Rights groups urge UN to take stronger stance on situation in Philippines

Rights groups urge UN to take stronger stance on situation in Philippines
A relative of a victim of an extra-judicial killing attends a memorial mass ahead of All Soul's Day to remember loved ones slain in the government's war on drugs, at the Commission on Human Rights in Manila on Oct. 29, 2021.
AFP / Jam Sta. Rosa

MANILA, Philippines — Ahead of the 51st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, human rights organizations on Wednesday called on the United Nations and the international community to take a stronger stance on the situation in the Philippines, which they said is the same as during the Duterte administration.

To recall, the UN Human Rights Council in 2020 settled for a resolution on "technical assistance and capacity-building for the promotion of human rights" in partnership with the Philippine government to improve its human rights situation — stopping short of an independent probe into the situation that rights groups were calling for at the time. 

How much has the "technical assistance" helped? At a press conference hosted by international rights watchdog Human Rights Watch on Wednesday afternoon, rights advocates pointed out that no concrete improvement has been observed on the ground in the two years since, even despite the turnover of another administration.

Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of rights group Karapatan said she has the same question after years of engaging with the technical working group, which hosted several capacity-building activities with both civil society and government bodies. 

"We raised the issue of the intent of the government to really engage in the process, to genuinely look at the baselines. And our baselines in this case are the various reports on human rights violations," she said. 

"We look at how minimal the joint program has addressd these numerous issues. I cannot really say that there has been substantial contribution in the improvement of the human rights situation in the Philippines. There is a problem, and if we don't identify the problems, then how else can we get anywhere?"

Rose Trajano, international advocacy officer of iDEFEND, urged follow-up resolutions including more immediate measures for justice and compensation for the families of victims of the Duterte administration's war on drugs. 

"I think we will have a real problem if no follow-up resolution will be done by the UN Human Rights Council," she said. "A follow-up resolution should also ensure that the government would commit to concrete, time-bound justice and accountability targets."

Trajano added that iDEFEND would continue pushing for an international investigation into the human rights situation in the Philippines. 

Cathy Lopez, coordinator for human rights research at Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services or IDEALS said that the human rights situation under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. "remains dire."

"Rights violations continue to proliferate in the country's poorest communities," she said, adding that some of the nonprofit's ongoing cases involve killings as recent as July 2022.

Ex-CHR commissioner laments lack of appointees ahead of UNHRC session

The justice and foreign affairs departments are the co-chairs of the Steering Committee of the UNJP, which implements the UN resolution. 

Before the Commission on Appointments last week, Ambassador Antonio Manuel Lagdameo, the country's permanent representative to the United Nations, vowed to fairly represent the Philippines on the issue of human rights and other common values in the community of nations. But he went on to claim that there are "misrepresentation and exaggeration of the so-called violations from the Philippines' side" in the realm of human rights.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has yet to fill vacancies for the five commissioners of the Commission on Human Rights. 

How might the lack of Commission on Human Rights appointees in the Philippines be received at the 51st session of the Human Rights Council?

Lucy McKernan, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch, said that international scrutiny "remains essential" in the HRW's view with domestic remedies still largely falling short. 

"There is no indication that the new government will take a different approach...the UN Human Rights Council should not be fooled by the Philippine government and their propaganda that the rights situation has improved since the UNJP," she said. 

Former CHR commissioner Karen Gomez-Dumpit said that this latest period without commissioners appointed has been the longest the CHR has gone without appointees, adding that regardless of its appointment situation, the CHR should also aim to maintain its fiscal independence moving forward.

"At the council level, I have no doubt that most of the like-minded states will ask the current government to ensure that there are appointments forthcoming, credible ones, transparent processes in appointments of the CHR, and to ensure that the budget is there for the CHR to independently operate," she said. 

"It has been shown that our justice system is very sick in the country...We need to do something more positive; we have to make sure that there are alternatives to ensure that crime is prevented." — Franco Luna 

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