UN high commissioner says severe human rights violations continue in the Philippines
MANILA — The head of the United Nations (UN) human rights office on Thursday urged the Philippine government to publish the findings of its drug war review panel.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the UN Human Rights Council during its 48th session in Geneva that while the Philippines’ drug war review is an “initial development” in its Joint Program for Human Rights with the Philippines (UNJP), it needs to be made public.
“In February, the Secretary of Justice announced at the Human Rights Council some preliminary findings of the inter-agency review panel on anti-illegal drugs operations where deaths occurred. The panel has now referred its findings on 52 cases involving 154 police officers for investigation for criminal liability,” she said.
“I encourage publication of the panel’s findings so its work can be evaluated,” she added.
Bachelet was referring to the two drug war reviews that a Department of Justice-led panel has so far examined but whose reports have never been publicized thus far.
The first one involving 328 drug war cases based on records of the National Prosecution Service was finished in December last year, the preliminary findings of which Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra revealed before the UNHRC.
Guevarra said that in more than half of the cases, law enforcement agents failed to follow standard protocols and the weapons supposedly used by slain drug war suspects were not fully examined.
Justice Undersecretary Adrian Sugay later said the violations of protocols actually took place in “almost all” of the cases they reviewed, including the second batch of 52 cases from PNP Internal Affairs Service (IAS) records.
Sugay told ANC Rundown Tuesday that in the second drug war review, they found a lack of scene of the crime operatives (SOCO) reports, paraffin tests, ballistics tests, as well as the lack of any attempt on the part of the police officers to determine the ownership of the firearms recovered from slain drug suspects who supposedly fought back against authorities.
In some instances, Sugay said, paraffin tests showed the suspects did not in fact fire any firearm since there were no gunpowder nitrates on the hands of those killed.
But the DOJ has yet to release any official communication regarding the new findings, deferring instead to the decision of the Office of the President on whether to release the reports.
BACHELET: INVOLVE THE CHR
At the UNHRC, Bachelet also urged the Philippine government to involve the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and other relevant agencies in its drug war review "by sharing information on case and investigation to ensure an effective and victim-centered process."
The CHR previously lamented that it was left out of the first drug war review despite the Philippine government’s promise before the UNHRC.
Most recently, the DOJ said the CHR will be involved in the next phase of the drug war review — ensuring participation of families of drug war victims in the case buildup of the National Bureau of Investigation but whether the CHR will have access to the 2 drug war reports will still be subject to discussion.
Engagement with civil society and the Philippine CHR is among the key components of the UNJP.
Bachelet noted there have been some developments under the UNJP, including a national consultation with the CHR on the implementation of guidelines on human rights-based approach in handling drugs cases.
The CHR itself is intended to play a bigger role in monitoring counterterrorism measures.
BACHELET: INSTITUTIONAL AND POLICY CHANGES NEEDED
In her report, Bachelet said that the recent acquittal of 19 cops involved in the killing of Albuera, Leyte Mayor Rolando Espinosa in a police cell in 2016 "highlights the challenges in securing accountability” in the Philippines.
A Quezon City court acquitted the cops due to failure of prosecution witnesses to identify the suspects in court.
Bachelet said institutional and policy changes should also be put in place to prevent further violations.
She cited a recent Supreme Court order limiting the powers of Quezon City and Manila courts to issue warrants outside their judicial regions and the mandatory use of body cameras in certain police operations.
"These are important preventive measures, the effectiveness of which has been well-documented in other states,” she said.
Bachelet also welcomed the probe the International Criminal Court launched on the on drug war killings in the Philippines.
“This process brings into sharp focus the issue of the ability and willingness of domestic accountability mechanisms to produce clear and measurable results,” she said.
‘CONTINUING HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS AND ABUSES'
"Despite these steps, I remain disturbed by reports of continuing and severe human rights violations and abuses across the country…,“ Bachelet said, citing abuses in law enforcers' counter-insurgency operations, vigilante killings, and reports of recruitment of children and extortion allegedly by the New People’s Army and the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Bachelet noted continued risks of harassment and red-tagging among human rights defenders in the Philippines (including environmental defenders), journalists, union activists, church workers, judges and lawyers.
She particularly mentioned the killings of 9 Tumanduk tribe members last year and of 9 activists in Calabarzon in March this year.
"As the Philippines heads into an election year, I urge all sides to set aside the ugly rhetoric and destructive narratives that label human rights defenders, attack independent media or condone extrajudicial killings and other abuses. The government should take, in turn, actions to ensure free civic space and protection for those who engage in peaceful civic action and debate at this particular important time,” she said.
Reacting to Bachelet's update, Manila-based rights coalition KARAPATAN appreciated her assessment of continuing and severe human rights violations but said that the efforts of the Philippine drug war review panel is "too little, too late."
“Thousands of lives have been claimed and their kin have been crying out for justice for the last five years,” KARAPATAN Secretary General Cristina Palabay said in a statement.
“The recent court acquittal of 19 police personnel in killing of Albuera mayor Rolando Espinosa adds to the numerous other cases filed in courts by victims and their families, wherein there is almost nil delivery of justice. The ICC Pre-Trial Chamber’s opening of an investigation in the Philippines is a significant indication on the inadequacy, if not non-existent, domestic mechanisms in the country,” she added.
National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers President Edre Olalia echoed Bachelet’s call to publish the results of the drug war review.
“We subscribe to the need to publish the findings of the rather belated ‘investigations’ by the Philippine government on the paltry cases related to the ‘drug war’ so it can be ‘evaluated’ and to ensure transparency. Continuing secrecy on matters of paramount public interest engenders distrust and cynicism,” he said.
On the ICC probe, Olalia said Bachelet’s statement “virtually rebuffed” the Philippine government through diplomatic language when she said that the ICC developments give a “sharp focus on the ability and willingness of domestic remedies.”
“The subtext is apparent: the domestic remedies remain unable, unwilling and even ineffective to bring impartial, concrete and measurable justice to the victims,” he said.