US cites continuing killings, rights violations in PH in 2018 Human Rights Report

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 14 2019 03:24 PM | Updated as of Mar 14 2019 07:25 PM

Relatives of victims of government's deadly drug war gather at the United Church of Christ of the Philippines (UCCP) in August 2018. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/File

MANILA (UPDATE) - Extrajudicial killings, rights abuses and threats against independent media continued under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte last year, the United States said in its annual Human Rights report released Wednesday.

Between July 2016 to July 2018, an average of 6 people died daily due to the government's anti-drug operations, the US State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018 read.

The report said that "civilian control over the Philippine National Police (PNP) continued to improve but was not fully effective."

"There were numerous reports that government security agencies and their informal allies committed arbitrary or unlawful killings in connection with the government-directed campaign against illegal drugs," the report noted.

"Killings of activists, judicial officials, local government leaders, and journalists by anti-government insurgents and unknown assailants also continued," it said.

It also cited how drug war deaths declined when it was briefly suspended in October 2017, and that the death toll climbed anew when the suspension was lifted in December of the same year. 

"Fatalities fell dramatically following the PNP’s suspension of the counternarcotics campaign in accordance with a presidential memorandum in October 2017. The president reversed the suspension in December 2017 and reported extrajudicial killings increased, but to a lower level than prior to the suspension," the report read. 

Government has several times defended the death of drug suspects in police anti-drug operations, saying they were justified as those slain had resisted arrest. It has denied involvement in summary killings. 

Duterte is facing complaints before the International Criminal Court over alleged killings in the drug war. He has ordered the country's pullout from the tribunal. 

Police probed "a limited number of reported human rights abuses" and "slow judicial processes remained an obstacle to bringing government officials allegedly involved in human rights abuses to justice," the report read.

The government reported 4,854 civilians and 87 police killed under the drug war, but several groups question the data as the Philippine National Police (PNP) allegedly "refused to share information" with the Commission on Human rights, the US State Department said.

"The Supreme Court ruled that the PNP must turn over documents. The PNP indicated in May that it had turned over 95 percent of the required records to the solicitor general, although it was not clear whether these records were subsequently turned over to the Supreme Court," it said.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH

The Philippines continued to enjoy freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution, but "Duterte’s public attacks on individuals and international bodies who criticized his policies had a chilling effect on free speech and expression," the report said.

"Broadcast media contacts reported pressure from their boards of directors to report positively on the government for fear of economic retaliation on their business interests," it said.

The report described online news website Rappler as a "target of substantial government pressure due to its critical coverage."

On Monday, the Court of Appeals ruled that Rappler violated the Constitution after it granted control to foreign entity Omidyar Network through Philippine Depositary receipts (PDRs).

Separate tax evasion charges were filed against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa who is out on bail.

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo earlier said Duterte had no hand in the cases filed against Rappler and its chief.

"We have repeatedly said that we have never and we'll never interfere with the function of the judiciary as well as the other branch. If the judiciary finds probable cause for an information filed, then we have to respect the law on the matter," Panelo told Palace reporters.

"It's a question of tax evasion. You violate tax laws then you will prosecuted," he said.

The report also cited Duterte's recurring tirades against ABS-CBN Corp.

"President Duterte repeatedly criticized ABS-CBN, the nation’s most influential network, for the station’s failure to air his political advertisements during the 2016 election campaign. He publicly threatened to block renewal of the network’s franchise, which expires in 2020, but later backtracked and claimed he would not intervene. The law requires broadcast stations to secure a franchise from Congress, the current majority of which is aligned with the president," it read. 

Foreign journalists were also barred from covering Philippine press briefings during the November ASEAN Summit in Singapore, the report noted.

"The journalists were later granted access but were not allowed to ask questions," it said.

NO CONCLUSIONS

The report, which evaluated human rights practices in about 200 countries and territories, did not make conclusions and recommendations out of the situation in individual countries.

"We try to make it so that the reader can draw that conclusion, but we don’t draw those conclusions ourselves," Michael Kozak, Senior Bureau Official at the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told reporters in a briefing in Washington.

"I think if you go through the reports, if you see a country that says there were no reports of egregious human rights violations, that’s probably in the pretty good category," he said.

"But then if you look at another one, and they’ve got extrajudicial killing, they’ve got torture, they’ve got rape as a weapon of war, killing journalists, closing down independent media – bang, bang, bang, all of those things, you’d say, well, that probably fits in the worst category or pretty close to it," he said without mentioning specific countries.

The US State Department has been producing annual human rights reports on all countries receiving assistance and all United Nations member states since 1977.

"I wish I could say that the record of every country evaluated in this year’s report is spotless or even improved, but it’s simply not the case," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a press briefing.

"Even some of our friends, allies, and partners around the world have human rights violations. We document those reports with equal force," he said without identifying a particular country.

In a statement, the Commission on Human Rights urged the government to take the report as an opportunity to assess its "performance in fulfilling human rights obligations."

"In the end, any improvement in realizing human rights through sound policies and programs will redound to the benefit of every Filipino," it said.

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