Pulling out
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - July 17, 2019 - 12:00am

As of last night, the word from the secretary of foreign affairs was that the Philippines would not pull out of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) or cut diplomatic ties with Iceland.

On the other hand, Malacañang said Cabinet members do not have the final word on this. As President Duterte recently proved Palace officials correct on diplomatic matters, the pullout from the UNHRC and severing of ties with Iceland remain possible.

Iceland has a lot of fire; the country is powered almost entirely by geothermal energy. It’s neighboring Greenland that is mostly ice.

This is one of the first interesting factoids Icelandic tourist guides tell foreign visitors. All “Game of Thrones” fans know that Iceland is the “Land of Fire and Ice” – dotted with active volcanoes, and with vast stretches of desert and moss-covered lava fields. There are geysers, fjords, waterfalls and geothermal pools with boiling water bubbling and steaming like the cauldrons of hell. Algae interacting with water shooting up from the bowels of the Earth created the spectacular Blue Lagoon. The soil is warm enough to sustain grass in valleys and hills where sheep and the distinctive Icelandic horses graze. There is an awesome black sand beach facing the Atlantic Ocean that looks so enchanting you can actually believe trolls live in the area.

So, no, Juan and Juana, Iceland doesn’t have too much ice. In fact its problem is that it’s losing its ice at an alarming rate, thanks to global warming, with its glaciers receding.

But we get President Duterte’s message: doesn’t Iceland have problems in its own backyard?

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The comment, as everyone knows, was in reaction to Iceland’s initiation of that resolution, narrowly approved last week by the UNHRC, to “review” the killings related to the bloody war on drugs being waged by the Duterte administration.

Commission on Human Rights Chairperson Chito Gascon, who’s still waiting for his invite to the State of the Nation Address this Monday, explained to “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV / One News last week that the UNHRC resolution does not call for an investigation of the killings.

What the resolution proposes is the monitoring of the drug war and reporting on the killings, with the broader objective of improving the human rights situation in the Philippines. Gascon said there is no punitive element; no sanctions await the country, even if the UNHRC concludes that there have been serious abuses or lapses in the way the war on drugs is being carried out.

It’s the International Criminal Court that conducts investigations, and has punitive powers that the UN can enforce. At this point, the complaints filed against Duterte and the officials involved in Oplan Tokhang and Double Barrel, led by his police chief-turned-senator Bato dela Rosa, for crimes against humanity remain in the “preliminary examination” stage in the ICC.

A person facing trial before the ICC can be apprehended by UN forces, even in the defendant’s home country. This, of course, can be tricky if the defendant is in power. But the ICC has shown, in several cases, that an offender against humanity may run but can’t hide forever.

The UNHRC does not have such powers. What the resolution does is condemn the way the war on drugs is being carried out in the Philippines.

And let’s admit it, the resolution is also an indictment of the criminal justice system in our country. International bodies assume jurisdiction over internal matters in a sovereign state only when it is deemed that the state has lost the ability or willingness to do its work – in this case, to protect its people and uphold the right to life.

Is there such a failure in the Philippines?

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The Duterte administration vehemently says no. But in fact the brutality of the war on drugs is rooted in the weakness of the criminal justice system.

Crime suspects have rights and the presumption of innocence is enshrined in the Constitution. Because drug laws impose tough penalties, the required evidence is also heavy to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Drug traffickers have learned to abuse this state of affairs, combining it with the vulnerability of public servants to corruption.

Those who have watched the “Narcos” and “El Chapo” TV series saw the powerful corrupting influence of the illegal drug trade. I have talked to a number of law enforcement officials who do not necessarily support Duterte’s brutal drug war, but who say that the culture of corruption in the Philippines is similar to those in Colombia and Mexico at the height of the drug cartel operations.

The sense that the state has failed in promoting the rule of law has to be one of the reasons for the continuing stratospheric approval ratings of Duterte and his unorthodox methods of dealing with criminality.

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The ambassador of one of the UNHRC’s European member states that did not support the Iceland resolution told me that this was precisely the reason why his government voted the way it did: it recognized popular support for Duterte, and the Philippines’ sovereign right to deal with peace and order problems the way it sees fit.

Now the Philippine government has floated the idea of pulling out of the UNHRC, and to cut diplomatic ties with Iceland.

It seems it is also snubbing the countries that supported the resolution, starting with France during its embassy’s Bastille Day celebration last Sunday at the official residence of the ambassador.

Such moves are of course prerogatives of the executive. What’s the impact of severing ties with Iceland? It doesn’t even have an embassy here, and Filipinos can still get an Iceland visa from the embassy of Denmark in Manila.

Fortunately for believers of multilateralism in this country, diplomatic relations endure based on shared values, not the fleeting nature of politics and personalities. Severed ties can be restored. And we can renew our international commitments to the values that underpin our democratic way of life, flawed as it is.

What’s the impact of pulling out of the UNHRC? It has had no impact on the United States, but the Philippines is not the US. And even floating the idea of a pullout is highlighting the existence of an undeniable human rights problem in the Philippines.

The human rights record of Rodrigo Duterte is no secret. Yet Filipinos sent him to the presidency by a landslide, on a platform of killing people. We asked for his kind of law enforcement; we’re getting it.

The UN will not solve any human rights crisis in our country. We have to do it ourselves.

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