MANILA — Ahead of Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla's expected address before the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) on Wednesday, a leading watchdog called out the international body's alleged failure to act on the rights situation in the Philippines, citing the recent killing of a journalist.
Remulla will address the UN HRC in Geneva at 8:30 p.m. Manila time for its 51st session, where he is expected to tout institutional reforms he has introduced as head of the Department of Justice (DOJ), along with the country’s human rights and accountability mechanisms.
“He will highlight the United Nations Joint Program on Human Rights (UNJP) as a constructive and people-centered approach to human rights that brings together key stakeholders and is well-integrated within the country-team program of the UN development system,” according to a press release from the Philippine Mission to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva.
In a meeting with acting High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif on Tuesday, Remulla discussed his efforts in decongesting prisons.
Last month, the DOJ and the Bureau of Corrections, with the help of the Public Attorneys Office, released 371 inmates who have served their sentences.
Remulla, who had identified jail decongestion as his priority in his first 100 days in office, told Al-Nashif he intends to continue with the release of prisoners while strengthening the witness protection program.
He had attributed the slow progress in resolving drug war killings in the country partly to the difficulty in securing witnesses who can testify on alleged abuses in the anti-drug campaign that has left thousands of suspects dead and which is now the subject of the International Criminal Court’s scrutiny.
Remulla is also expected to meet with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and attend other meetings until October 14.
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: UN HRC FAILED TO ACT
But Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a statement on Wednesday, doubted if the UNJP that Remulla is expected to speak highly of ever worked to address the killings and impunity in the country.
“Since Marcos took office on June 30, there has been no letup in ‘drug war’ killings or other human rights violations. Ninety drug-related deaths have been reported by the Third World Studies Center of the University of the Philippines during the new administration, including 41 since Marcos’ press secretary said on August 11 that the ‘drug war’ would continue,” it said.
“On October 3, unidentified gunmen killed a radio journalist, Percival Mabasa, in Las Pinas City, in Metro Manila. He was the second journalist killed since Marcos became president,” HRW added, referring to the killing of a radio commentator popularly known as Percy Lapid, who had a sizable following on social media.
The HRW said that harassment and attacks against activists, rights defenders and journalists in the Philippines have persisted.
It cited red-tagging activities of the anti-insurgency body National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, the continued detention of former senator Leila de Lima on allegedly trumped-up drug charges and the conviction for cyber libel of journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa.
The UNJP was created in 2021 to institutionalize human rights reforms in the country, after global concerns were expressed on the thousands killed due to the drug war.
A 2019 UN HRC resolution tasked the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to come up with a comprehensive report on the situation in the Philippines.
In June 2020, the UN OHCHR came out with a scathing report which found some 8,000 drug suspects and 248 rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and labor leaders killed in the Philippines at that time.
On the same month, then justice secretary Menardo Guevarra informed the UN HRC that the Philippine government had quietly been conducting a review of around 5,600 cases of anti-illegal drug operations since February 2020 and promised to include the Commission on Human Rights as an independent monitoring body in its review.
Guevarra’s promise was widely perceived by rights groups as having led to the passage of a softer resolution by the UN HRC.
“Instead of creating a commission of inquiry to investigate the thousands of extrajudicial killings, the Human Rights Council in 2020 settled on providing the Philippines 'technical cooperation' and 'capacity building' that, while valuable, did not advance accountability for grave crimes,” Human Rights Watch said.
The 3-year program has not gotten beyond its preliminary phase, it noted.
“Without a commitment to the program from the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and the political backing offered by a Human Rights Council resolution, the UN Joint Program is unlikely to make much progress,” HRW added.
The rights group slammed the UN HRC for letting victims of human rights violations in the Philippines down when it failed to pass a resolution to continue to scrutinize the situation in the country.
The 51st UN HRC session will end on October 7.
“The UN Human Rights Council’s failure to act on the Philippines is devastating for both the victims of human rights abuses and civil society groups that seek to uphold basic rights,” said Lucy McKernan, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch.
“The end to council scrutiny of the Philippines reflects especially poorly on the European and other concerned governments, led by Iceland, that had banded together in 2020 to support a resolution and the UN Joint Program that sought real improvements on the ground,” she added.
“Families of victims had high hopes that the Human Rights Council would continue its scrutiny of rights abuses in the Philippines, but the council let them down. The human rights situation in the Philippines remains dire, but as the council drops the Philippines from its agenda, justice and accountability remain as elusive as ever,” she continued.
Aside from the UN HRC session in Geneva, the Philippines is also expected to undergo a periodic review of the implementation of its treaty obligations while still seeking to defer an ICC probe on the drug war and Davao Death Squad killings in the country.
The ICC Pre-Trial Chamber has yet to decide whether to allow deferral of the probe or grant ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan’s request to resume his office’s investigation.
Remulla had insisted the Philippine justice system is working but Khan rejected that claim.