UN rights body passes resolution to help PH promote human rights

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 07 2020 09:36 PM

UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva, Switzerland, February 27, 2020. Denis Balibouse, Reuters/File Photo

Measure stops short of launching independent, int'l probe on killings, rights violations

MANILA — The United Nations Human Rights Council on Wednesday adopted a resolution that would provide technical cooperation and capacity-building for promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines, which rights groups say falls short of launching an independent international probe into the human rights situation in the country.

Resolution L.38 was passed by consensus just before 7pm Manila time and did not go through a vote.

The resolution, co-sponsored by Iceland, the Philippines, Hungary, India, Nepal, Norway, Thailand and Turkey, requested the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to provide technical assistance and capacity-building for “domestic investigative and accountability measures, data gathering on alleged police violations, civic space and engagement with civil society and the Commission on Human Rights, national mechanism for reporting and follow-up, counter-terrorism legislation and human rights-based approaches to drug control.”

The OHCHR released a damning report in June this year criticizing the Philippine government for widespread human rights violations and persistent impunity due to a heavy-handed focus on countering national security threats and illegal drugs.

The report recommended empowering an independent body to conduct prompt, impartial investigations into the killings and human rights violations, improve cooperation between law enforcement bodies and the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, as well as inviting UN representatives to monitor and report on specific human rights concerns.

The Philippine government responded by launching a joint initiative between the Department of Justice and the CHR on data-sharing to strengthen the capacity to investigate and prosecute cases of human rights violations, a development which the UN HRC resolution noted. 

The resolution recognized the cooperation between the Philippine government and the United Nations country team, and took note of the government’s efforts to broaden positive engagement with the UN through a multi-year joint program on human rights, which include increasing the role in the Philippines of the OHCHR.

Rights groups who had been lobbying for an impartial, independent international probe lamented that the resolution stops short of providing meaningful actions.

“We are deeply disappointed by the collective failure of States at the Human Rights Council to put in place an international investigation into killings and other serious violations committed in the context of the so-called war on drugs in the Philippines – this despite repeated calls by UN experts and civil society, and despite widespread killings and other horrific violations in the country documented by the UN and others,” Laila Matar, Deputy UN Director for Human Rights Watch said.

EcuVoice, a coalition of rights groups, expresssed reservations if the approach adopted by the Council will address the killings and violations.

“We believe that programs for technical cooperation and capacity building would NOT decisively curb the worsening human rights situation in the country. Victims and their families, human rights activists and defenders, and communities affected by these violations believe that prosecution and punishment of perpetrators of human rights violations, especially those committed by the highest officials in government, and thoroughgoing and immediate review, amendment, changes and/or repeal of policies instituted in law and practice by the Philippine government are among the crucial indicators in addressing the strong and persistent demands for justice and accountability,” it said in a statement.

Amnesty International called the resolution a “missed chance” for seeking justice.

“The Human Rights Council failed to advance justice for bereaved families across the Philippines who had placed their hopes in the international community,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Philippines Researcher at Amnesty International.

 “This weak resolution also lets down the brave human rights defenders, journalists and others who have engaged with the UN in good faith and pursue their work at huge personal risk,” she added.

The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP), which has vigorously lobbied the UNHRC and its members states "because domestic remedies have failed," said the resolution "does not answer our fervent call for an independent international investigation."

"This means that the new Special Rapporteur, on the rights of indigenous peoples, Jose Francisco 'Pancho' Cali Tzay, will not necessarily be allowed to see first-hand the plight of the Lumad in Haran, a church-declared sanctuary of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. As such, his much-needed assistance in correcting the false accusations made by Sec. Carlito Galvez that Haran, a church ministry, is allegedly being used by communist rebels to solicit support from international donors, can still be impeded by the Duterte administration," the NCCP said.

Amnesty International noted President Rodrigo Duterte’s continued incitement of killings, the promotion to national police chief of Lt Gen Camilo Cascolan, an alleged architect of the deadly anti-drug campaign, and the adoption of a dangerous anti-terror law. 

The group also mentioned the conviction of Maria Ressa for ‘cyber libel,’ the shutdown of ABS-CBN, the new spike in police killings and the brutal murders of human rights, political activists and a journalist in recent months.

“With this government’s track record of brazen disregard for basic human rights and civil liberties, with its officials’ relentless efforts to vilify human rights defenders and active campaign to silence critics amid UN HRC resolution 41/2 and Ms. Bachelet’s report, we have serious reservations that the supposed technical assistance and capacity-building programs will stop the human rights violations. We even fear that the government may abuse such programs and use these as smokescreen to conceal their apathy and disregard toward the victims or to commit reprisals against activists and human rights defenders engaging in the process,” EcuVoice said.

Meanwhile, Philippine-based rights group Karapatan challenged the Philippine government to allow access into the country of UN human rights mechanisms to see if the domestic accountability mechanisms are truly working, saying there’s nothing to fear if there is nothing to hide.

“These so-called domestic mechanisms have been presented routinely to portray a robust democracy yet time and time again, these have been exposed to have utterly failed in delivering justice and accountability for victims of human rights violations. No high official has been made accountable for directly ordering, inciting, encouraging, or tolerating these violations through policy and pronouncements,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said.

“There is also a dire lack of evidence on whether these mechanisms have been effective in addressing these cases. This has led to increased international scrutiny over the Philippine government’s refusal to substantially and truthfully address these violations. If no access will be given to independent human rights mechanisms to get a sense of the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation on the ground, it would only go to show that the Duterte administration is indeed merely posturing to evade accountability,” she said. 

Despite the shortcomings of the resolution in the eyes of rights defenders, they considered it a significant indication of the international community’s concern over the human rights situation in the Philippines.

Edre Olalia, co-head of Ecuvoice delegation to UNHRC in Geneva, said that while “adoption by consensus of problematic Resolution is ‘tricky assuagement’ of cries for justice,” the Philippine government "caved in" to widespread international criticism.

“[I] is quite clear that Duterte and the state forces behind the brutal campaign are not off the hook and will face continued examination. The adopted resolution means the Duterte administration cannot escape scrutiny for its egregious violations. If anything, with the Philippines on the agenda for the next two years, the HRC retains the means to take more robust action, depending on whether the government keeps its word to respect human rights,” Human Rights Watch’s Matar said.

For Amnesty International’s Chhoa-Howard, “[t]he decision to keep the Philippines on the Council’s agenda sends a clear message to the Duterte administration that the international community is still watching.”

The Duterte government has repeatedly said it upholds human rights despite concerns raised by several groups both in the country and abroad over alleged abuses. 

"We maintain that the Philippines has continuously discharged its obligations to punish violations of human rights. We have legislation and mechanisms against torture and enforced disappearances, laws to the enforce international humanitarian law, and penal laws that have been crafted to protect and promote human rights as enshrined in our Constitution," Harry Roque, Duterte's spokesman, said in June.

"We have a working and independent judiciary that deals with violators of human rights, regardless of who they may be. As we said in our response to the Office of the High Commissioner’s report, issued in early June, our courts stand ready to receive and rule on any complaints," he added.