OPINION: UN Special Rapporteurs are not the enemy

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Aug 23 2016 05:34 AM

You’d think that President Rodrigo Duterte, more than most people, would know that UN Special Rapporteurs are not enemies of the Filipino people.
 
Duterte should know because of his long-time affinity with the Lumad, Mindanao’s besieged indigenous peoples. Not too long ago a UN Special Rapporteur played an important role in helping Lumad who had sought sanctuary in Davao, his home city.
 
Chaloka Beyani is the UN Special Rapporteur for Internally Displaced Persons. He went around Mindanao in 2015 to investigate reports of growing displacement of the Lumad, whether because of military/paramilitary operations or encroachment of big business into ancestral lands, or both.
 

Cops in Davao City try to forcibly “rescue” Lumad who sought sanctuary to evade marauding paramilitary in the mountain villages of Davao del Norte, Davao Oriental, Compostela Valley and Bukidnon. UN Special Rapporteur for Internally Displaced Persons Chaloka Beyani probed their plight. Photo by Karlos Manlupig.

 
Among the places Beyani visited was the Haran sanctuary in Davao, the temporary home of around 1,000 Lumad from southern Mindanao’s highlands.
 
Beyani helped bring to the world the truth about the displaced Lumad and their activist supporters. In fact, he helped demolish the drama and the lies staged by North Cotabato Representative Nancy Catamco (Liberal Party).
 
The legislator had wanted to forcibly drag the Lumad back to the mountain villages where the paramilitary Alamara lay in wait to mow them down. She staged a "rescue" that ended up a brawl, and Catamco squirming as an elderly woman chieftain poured scorn on her.
 
(READ: Fiery chieftain takes down Catamco)

 
Dirty trick exposed
 
Beyani had come with permission from President Benigno Aquino’s government. But his presence alarmed those in charge of persecuting the Lumad.
 
So, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) under Aquino came up with a brilliant idea – they mounted a propaganda offensive, tried to twist Beyani’s words, lied to make it look like a UN expert was extolling their human rights violations
 
But the UN expert was no pushover. His office publicly called out the AFP, causing embarrassment for Mr. Aquino’s government and forging some officers to resign.
 
(READ: UN special rapporteur's office hits AFP for 'gross misrepresentation')

(READ: AFP apologizes to UN Special Rapporteur, officer resigns)

 
In March this year, 18-year-old Michelle Campos, the daughter of slain Lumad leader Dionel Campos met United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst in the sidelines of the 31st UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva.  

Michelle Campos, daughter of slain Lumad leader Dionel Campos, Christina Palabay, Karapatan secretary-general and Dr. Naty Castro, the rights group’s Caraga coordinator, in a March 2 meeting with United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst. Photo from humanrights.net

A day after the meeting, Forst included his report to the 31st UN Human Rights Council the September 1, 2015 massacre in Lianga, Surigao del Sur, which more than a hundred children witnessed. He spoke on “aggressions suffered by human rights defenders in rural areas and indigenous communities in response to violations committed in the course of environmentally dubious mining operations, wide-spread development of monoculture plantations, land grabs and territorial disputes." 
 
Duterte should relate with what the UN expert said: he has said much about abuses in the mining industry and the theft of ancestral lands and other social problems fuel conflict in his beloved Mindanao.
 
‘Independent experts’
 
Special Rapporteurs are independent experts who work on behalf of the UN through “special procedures.”

The UN Human Rights Council confers their mandates, either based on country (for hotspots) or themes -- like that of Beyani, Forst and Duterte’s current pet peeve, Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on summary executions. 
 
(READ: UN experts nix Duterte's 'license to kill')

 
The nearest thing to the theme of “summary executions” is “extra judicial executions.”
 
The only Philippine mission by a Special Rapporteur on extra judicial executions was undertaken by Philip Alston in 2007, during former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration. He completed his report in 2008 and published an update the following year.
 
Duterte was then mayor of Davao City.
 
Tense visit
 
I covered the Manila leg of that mission saw how tense rights workers were – they task was to get witnesses safely to Alston, a highly dangerous activity given the murders committed by Mrs. Arroyo’s heroes.
 

Former Special Rapporteur on extra judicial executions Philip Alston and Karapatan staff during his 2007 country mission to the Philippines. Reuters/File photo

 
It took Alston several tries before the Arroyo government finally consented to invite him. By then, Karapatan had documented some 800 political killings since Mrs. Arroyo assumed the land’s top post in 2001.
 
The assigned host: then National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, who liked lumping militant legal groups with the underground Communist Party of the Philippines. 
 
Marie Enriquez, then secretary-general of Karapatan, described arrangements for Alston’s 10-day visit as “a security nightmare.”
 
These are the opening paragraphs of my report for The Manila Times:
 
“Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, bears an extraordinary burden as he sits down this week with witnesses to the mounting number of political killings in the country. 
 
Alston will wade through conflicting reports and clashing ideologies. The veteran rights worker also knows—and will not be allowed to forget—that witnesses are appearing before him at great risk to their lives. 
 
They are children and spou¬ses who witnessed the killings of loved ones, or activists who cradled dying colleagues in their arms. Many of them are themselves in hiding, hounded by state security forces. 
 
For months now, even years, they have huddled in the dark, protected by rights groups and religious organizations that labor to drag the cases through the Philippine legal maze.
 
This week, they are stepping out in the light.”
 
Davao death squads
 
Alston’s mission included the extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals in Duterte’s city.
 
His report said: “It is a commonplace that a death squad known as the “Davao Death Squad” (DDS) operates in Davao City. However, it has become a polite euphemism to refer vaguely to “vigilante groups” when accounting for the shocking predictability with which criminals, gang members, and street children are extrajudicially executed.”
 
The special rapporteur stressed the “officially-sanctioned character” of these killings.
 
‘No one involved covers his face. The men who warn mothers that their children will be the next to die unless they make themselves scarce turn up on doorsteps undisguised," the report said. "The men who gun down or, and this is becoming more common, knife children in the streets almost never cover their faces. In fact, for these killers to wear 'bonnets' is so nearly unheard of that the witnesses I interviewed did not think to mention the fact until I asked.”
 
Alston's narrative mirrors what Duterte acknowledged in one of his recent visits to military camps month: that he reached out to leftist rebels so he could focus his fire on criminals. 

Even then, Duterte liked to accept full responsibility but no criminal accountability. He denied the existence of death squads and crowed about making life very hard for criminals.

Alston gave a tough report but hardly anything that would qualify Special Rapporteurs as enemies.

Was it all a case of fatigue for the President? It's not the first time aides have had to scramble to interpret his rants in a more acceptable light.

But Duterte's plaints against so-called "western" human rights are nothing new. We've heard that through the decades, usually from strongmen of the South.

You can accuse Western powers of hypocrisy, in that they throw out the same universal values when it suits them. That would be a valid point to raise. 

But Duterte shouldn't spit on universal values and pretend human rights is an artificial construct imposed on silly brown people. Also, the barbarities of Western powers do not excuse barbarities here.

Read the report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston here.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.