By PURPLE S. ROMERO
Reports submitted by the Philippine government and various human rights groups paint a conflicting picture of the country’s human rights situation. These reports are up for evaluation in next month’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC).
The UPR is scheduled to kick off with its first session next month in Geneva, but advance reports of human rights situation in member-countries have been made public recently.
It is largely significant for the Philippines not only because it is one of the first 16 states up for review in the first session in April, but because it has to prove in the UPR that it was able to meet the pledges it made when it vied for re-election in the HRC last May 2007.
The Philippines is a member of the HRC.
Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo promised in the country’s re-election campaign that the Philippines will strengthen the fight against political killings of journalists and activists, support interfaith dialogue and focus on the rights of migrant workers.
The campaign worked as HRC renewed the country’s membership for 2007-2010, but the re-election was met with protests. Human rights groups said that the government has not addressed the problem of political killings seriously. The report of UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston cited the spate of extrajudicial killings and culture of impunity when he visited the country last February 2007.
The UPR is considered a watershed event in the advancement of human rights because it is the first global mechanism for assessing the ability of each country to protect human rights and meet its commitment in international human rights agreements.
Country reports in the UPR will show if changes have been made since then.
Continuing extralegal violence
The most urgent human rights concern in the reports submitted by the 31 human rights and civil society groups for the UPR is the continued incidence of warrantless arrests, enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings of activists.
These problems cut across all sectors as the reports stated that extralegal violence happens among women, peasants, indigenous people and media practitioners.
The reports raised the following issues:
· The Alliance of Advancement of People’s Rights or Karapatan stated that from January 2001 to January 2007, 885 people have been executed extra-judicially and 183 have been abducted
· The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center of the Norwegian Refugee Council reported that the increase in killings in 2006 has been the highest since 1986, with victims numbering at 180
· The Task Force Detainees of the Philippines documented 125 cases of torture under the administration of President Gloria Arroyo
The reports decried the lack of legislation criminalizing political killings and torture. The Commission on Human Rights stated this in their report, citing that the Philippines has ratified the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Punishment or Treatment in 1987, but has yet to pass a law punishing torture.
The Free Legal Assistance Group said that the Philippines is not yet a signatory to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court.
For its part, the Philippine National Report listed the following efforts to curb the problem on political killings:
· The creation of Task Force Usig (Task Force Prosecution) under the Philippine National Police (PNP), Task Force on Extrajudicial Killings, a special team of prosecutors from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Task Force 211 that aims to strengthen coordination between the DOJ, Department of National Defense, the PHRC and civil society in expediting investigation.
· Training of the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines on human rights.
· Establishment of human rights offices in the PNP and AFP.
· Formation of the Melo Commission that investigated extra-judicial killings.
Civil society groups lauded the creation of special courts on political killings by the Supreme Court, as well as the promulgation of the writ of amparo.
But while some of these efforts have been recognized by the 31 non-government stakeholders, they say that the government has failed to prosecute anybody for the killings especially when the suspects are members of the military or the police force.
Three of the five cases of extralegal violence in the Philippines presented by Special Rapporteur Manfred Nowak in the seventh session of HRC in February 2008 remain unresolved.
In these cases, people accused as members of the New People’s Army have been arrested and allegedly tortured by members of the AFP or the PNP. The reports of torture have been swept under the rug following the lack of a formal complaint.
Trafficking of women
Another issue that civil society groups noted is the protection of women’s rights especially in the areas of reproductive health and labor exploitation.
The Women’s Legal Bureau stated that 50 percent of victims of trafficking in Southeast Asia are Filipinas, translating to 25,000 to 30,000 women trafficked each year.
The ‘feminization’ of overseas employment, according to the World Organization Against Torture, resulted in the surge of trafficked women, as poverty drove Filipinas to work as domestic helpers abroad.
The Philippine national report (PNR), however, said that there are more female professional and technical workers (61% of total) than males, and viewed the rise of women overseas workers as a positive sign of development.
The PNR cited that the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking has extended livelihood assistance to victims of trafficking and their families. Ten persons have been convicted since the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law was enacted in 2003.
Overall, the PNR said that the Philippines ranks 45 out of 177 countries in the Gender Empowerment Measure as women fared well in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political participation and health and survival.
But one of the prickly issues that could start a debate in the UPR is the call of some stakeholders to legalize abortion and divorce, and legislate the protection of lesbians.
The Centre for Reproductive Rights said that the government has banned abortion without considering exceptions such as when a woman’s life or health is in danger, when the pregnancy was caused by rape, or when medical examination showed fetal damage.
Even with the ban, however, Filipinas, especially those who are poor, have undergone abortion in fly-by-night clinics, resulting in maternal deaths. According to EnGendeRights, the Philippines has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality rations in East and Southeast Asia, with 200 deaths in every 100,000 live births.
Lack of independence
The CHR and the stakeholders expressed alarm over recent motions which they said would curtail the independence of the CHR. One of these is the enactment of the Human Security Act of 2007, which gave CHR prosecutorial powers without prior dialogue or information.
The other is the Supreme Court decision in the case of the Commission on Human Rights Employees Association vs. the Commission on Human Rights promulgated in February 2007, where the high tribunal gave a final ruling that the CHR enjoys only “limited fiscal autonomy.”
However, the stakeholders stressed that the bigger threat to the independence of the CHR is its inability to strengthen the participation of the AFP and PNP in resolving human rights violations.
Another looming issue is the seeming hostility of the government to independent evaluation by the UN special procedures to monitor human rights violations in different countries.
The Asian Indigenous and Tribal People Network said the government has not extended a standing invitation to special procedures. The government is yet to agree to the visiting requests of the following:
· Special Rapporteur on the rights of migrants (requested visit in 2002, reminded government in 2006)
· Special Rapporteur on toxic waste (requested visit on February 1, 2005)
· Special Rapporteur on the right to food (requested visit on May 17, 2006, reminded government on July 3 2007)
· Working Group on enforced and involuntary disappearances (requested visit on May 24, 2006)
· Special Rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism (requested visit on December 9, 2005, reminded government on October 18, 2007)
· Independent Expert on the question of human rights and extreme poverty (requested visit in 2006)