'Heavy-handed' focus on security threats, drugs led to serious rights violations in PH - UN body

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 04 2020 04:34 PM | Updated as of Jun 04 2020 09:35 PM

More than 8,000 drug suspects and 248 rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, labor leaders killed in PH

MANILA (UPDATE) - The Philippine government's emphasis on addressing national security threats and illegal drugs has led to serious human rights violations, a report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (UN rights office) said Thursday.

The violations include the killing of more than 8,663 people during the government's drug war, based on official figures, as well as of 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists and trade unionists in connection with their work.

Dissenters, on the other hand, are vilified or arbitrarily arrested and detained, according to the report released at a time when the approval by Philippine lawmakers of an anti-terror bill is facing protest.

The report was commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council in July last year, with HRC members voting 18 to 14 (with 15 abstentions) in favor of an Iceland-backed resolution to require the UN rights office to prepare a "comprehensive written report" on the Philippines' human rights situation.

Manila had rejected the resolution as a "travesty."


Based on 893 written submissions, inputs from the Philippine government, analysis of various documents and material, as well as interviews with victims and witnesses, the UN report concluded that longstanding rights concerns have only become more acute in recent years.

It noted "widespread and systematic killing of thousands of alleged drug suspects", as well as of rights defenders.

"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 UN rights office said in a press release that cited the UN report.

It said witnesses, family members, journalists and lawyers are expressing "fears over their safety and a sense of powerlessness in the search for justice."

Because of the "failure of domestic mechanisms to ensure accountability," the UN report said there is a need for "independent, impartial, credible investigations into all allegations of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law."

The UN rights office said it is ready to assist efforts towards accountability both domestically and internationally.


According to the report, harmful rhetoric from high-level officials encouraging use of lethal force, coupled with key policy documents using vague terms such as "negation" and "neutralization", have led the police to believe they have "permission to kill."

It cited police raids routinely conducted without warrants and falsified evidence, such as recycling recovered guns with same serial numbers, which show victims were unarmed when they were killed.

Arrests of drug suspects, meanwhile, has led to a 534% congestion rate in the country's detention facilities - one of the highest globally.


The UN report noted that while there are thousand of rights advocates in the Philippines, they have been subjected to vilification and attacks, with some groups being associated with communists or terrorists.

Some of those who were "red-tagged," it said, end up getting threatened or killed.

It said "incendiary" language against certain sectors, ranging from degrading comments against women to incitement to extreme violence, could amount to a violation of the prohibition against arbitrary deprivation of life, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The report also highlighted threats to freedom of expression, such as legal charges against journalist Maria Ressa, senior politicians critical of the government such as Senator Leila de Lima and former Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, and the shutdown of ABS-CBN.

It expressed concern over what it views as militarization in Mindanao and Negros Island, as it notes there appears to be presumption of guilt and lack of due process or effective oversight in counter-insurgency operations.

The same report also looked at rights abuses of non-State actors like the New People's Army accused of killing, abducting and recruiting children, and of extortion.


UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet reminded the Philippine government that its response to major challenges such as poverty, inequality, armed conflict, natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic should be grounded on human rights approaches and meaningful dialogue.

“People who use or sell drugs do not lose their human rights,” she said.

“People who disagree with Government policies and criticize them, including in international fora, should not be vilified as terrorist sympathizers. Indigenous peoples should not be victims of a tug-of-war between the State, non-State armed groups and business interests.”


Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, in a statement, denied the accusations that the government is using the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to tighten censorship and suppress freedom of expression.

"We remain a nation that takes pride in protecting our people’s rights and freedoms, among which is the freedom of expression," he said.

Roque said there are occasions when the government has to step in, such as in the case of false information on social media and other platforms.

"But there are circumstances - and we have said this on numerous occasions - wherein such freedom becomes subject to derogation. A form of derogation falls under the criminal clause in Republic Act 11469, or the Bayanihan To Heal As One Act. The unconscionable conduct by individuals or groups to create, perpetrate, or spread false information on the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms does not constitute a right or freedom, but a crime," he said.

Roque, likewise, said the government takes cases of violations of human rights seriously and "resolves each one within our domestic processes."

"Rehashed claims of impunity are unfounded and the Palace reiterates that it has no place in the Philippines. Law enforcers operate on strict protocols and transgressors of the law are made accountable," he said.

"We remain steadfast in our pursuit of our obligations and commitments in the stewardship of the welfare and the human rights of our people. The consistent high approval ratings of the President, up to this time, affirm public support for his leadership," Roque added.


Manila-based Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (EcuVoice), which lobbied for the Iceland-backed resolution, called the UN report a "damning rebuff" of the Philippine government's human rights record.

"The facts and reality are undeniable and the Report has practically rebuffed the Duterte administration of its false narrative and pretensions about human rights," the group said in a statement.

"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," it added.

The group said it looks forward to concrete action and specific recommendations once the report is presented to the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva, adding that it hopes the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the UN Human Rights Committee will consider the report.

The ICC is set to conclude its preliminary examination of the Philippine anti-drug campaign this year while the UN Human Rights Committee is set to review the Philippines' rights record soon.