A day after Congress passed a new version of the Philippine anti-terrorism measure, the United Nations (UN) released a scathing report detailing widespread human rights violations and persistent impunity under the Rodrigo Duterte government.
In a 26-page report Thursday, June 4, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the government’s heavy-handed focus on countering national security threats and illegal drugs has resulted in serious human rights violations, including killings and arbitrary detentions, as well as the vilification of dissent.
Persistent impunity and formidable barriers to accessing justice need to be urgently addressed, the report said, also raising alarms over possible human rights violations by the prospective Human Security Act of 2020 that has been generating massive opposition among civil society groups since its passage by the House of Representatives Wednesday, June 3.
The report noted that many of the documented human rights concerns are long-standing but have become more acute in recent years.
“This has been manifested particularly starkly in the widespread and systematic killing of thousands of alleged drug suspects. Numerous human rights defenders have also been killed over the past five years,” the UN said.
The report said that the human rights violations brought about by the government’s focus on security threats are also reinforced by harmful rhetoric from high level officials.
The report also noted that the anti-drug killings range from “at least 8,663” to possibly triple the number.
The UN Human Rights Office also documented the work-related killing of at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists and trade unionists between 2015 and 2019.
There has been near impunity for these killings, with only one conviction for the killing of a drug suspect in a police operation since mid-2016, the report stated.
In gathering the report, the UN said it interviewed witnesses, family members, journalists and lawyers who expressed fears over their safety and a sense of powerlessness in the search for justice, resulting in a situation where “the practical obstacles to accessing justice within the country are almost insurmountable.”
Killings encouraged by highest officials
The UN Human Rights Office said it examined key policy documents relating to the campaign against illegal drugs and found a troubling lack of due process protections, and the use of language calling for “negation” and “neutralization” of drug suspects.
“Such ill-defined and ominous language, coupled with repeated verbal encouragement by the highest level of State officials to use lethal force, may have emboldened police to treat the circular as permission to kill,” the report stated.
Police raids on private households were routinely carried out without warrants, and post-operational spot reports examined by the Office indicated that evidence may have been falsified.
“Police repeatedly recovered guns bearing the same serial numbers from different victims in different locations,” suggesting some victims were unarmed at the time of their killing, the report revealed.
It added that human rights defenders have also been subject to verbal and physical attacks, threats and legal harassment in a manner that “increasingly institutionalized and normalized in ways that will be very difficult to reverse.”
Red-tagging as weapon
The report also identified “red-tagging” – labelling individuals or groups (including human rights defenders and NGOs) as communists or terrorists – as posing a serious threat to civil society and freedom of expression, noting that, in some cases, those who have been red-tagged were subsequently killed.
“Human rights advocacy is routinely equated with insurgency and the focus diverted to discrediting the messengers rather than examining the substance of the message,” the report said.
“This has muddied the space for debate, disagreement and for challenging State institutions and policies,” it added.
In the report, the UN Human Rights Office also detailed ongoing threats to freedom of expression, with legal charges and prosecutions being brought against journalists and senior politicians critical of the government, as well as actions to shut down media outlets.
The report also examined human rights violations in Mindanao and Negros Island, which have seen increased militarization through Duterte’s imposition of emergency measures.
“The effect of this militarization – coupled with the long-standing presence of armed groups and the pressure by powerful landed elites and large business projects – is particularly dire on already embattled indigenous and farming communities,” the report said.
The UN said there are concerns that counter-insurgency policies have given rise to patterns resembling “those that characterize the anti-illegal drugs campaign, notably a presumption of guilt and lack of due process or effective oversight – this time against those suspected of supporting the Communist Party of the Philippines and its New People’s Army (CPP and NPA).”
The report also said it received unverified complaints against NPA killings, abductions, recruitment of children and extortion by the New People’s Army (NPA), a charge repeatedly denied by the Communist guerrillas.
On to the UN Human Rights Council
The UN said there is a failure of domestic mechanisms to ensure accountability for the violations thus far, hence the need for independent, impartial, credible investigations into all allegations of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.
The Duterte government refused requests by the UNHCHR to conduct in-country investigations since the UN Human Rights Council passed the Iceland-sponsored resolution in July 2019 asking for an investigation on the killings connected with Duterte government’s anti-illegal drug campaign.
The UNHCHR said its report is based on 893 written submissions, substantial input from the Government of the Philippines, analysis of legislation, police reports, court documents, videos, photos and other open source material, as well as interviews with victims and witnesses.
The report is due to be discussed at the next UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva.
‘A damming rebuff’
The Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (EcuVoice) welcomed the UN Human Rights Office report, saying it highlights the practice of vilification, criminalization and elimination of free expression, democratic dissent and the continuing vicious attacks against civilians.
Ecuvoice said the facts and reality are undeniable and the report has practically rebuffed the Duterte administration of its false narrative and pretensions about human rights.
Ecuvoice sent a delegation to Geneva last February and March to participated in the UN HRC’s 43rd general session.
“It is a damning indictment of its non-compliance with principles, standards, instruments and conventions on human rights. The government must shape up and should seriously rethink its draconian approaches like institutionalizing opportunities for even more widespread violations through dubious “anti-terror” legislation, national security policies and those related to its bloody anti-narcotics campaign, the group said.
“We look forward to further concrete action and specific recommendations and resolutions when the report is taken up by the UNHR Council,” Ecuvoice said.
“We also hope this report is also taken into account and consideration by the International Criminal Court as well as the UN Human Rights Committee with its upcoming review on the Philippines,” it added. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)
(Disclosure: The reporter, himself a victim of vilification and harassment, was part of the Ecuvoice delegation to the UN HRC’s 43rd General Session last February-March session in Geneva, Switzerland.)