MANILA — As various international and local human rights groups raise concerns over alleged human rights violations in the Philippines, the Philippine government, through the Department of Justice (DOJ), launched a three-day human rights summit on Monday at the Philippine International Convention Center.
The gathering, which runs until Thursday, Dec. 10, is expected to showcase the DOJ’s accomplishments and initiatives to protect and promote human rights in the country, as well as touch on controversial topics such as the Anti-Terrorism Act, freedom of expression, and data privacy on social media.
“[T]his Summit should serve as our platform for earnest, intelligent discourse so that we may strengthen sectoral engagement and international partnerships in addressing human rights challenges,” Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said in his keynote address.
The summit comes 2 months since the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution that would provide technical cooperation and capacity-building for promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines, which rights groups criticized for falling short of launching an independent international probe into the human rights situation in the country.
Guevarra acknowledged the assistance of the UN and the UNHRC in conceptualizing and developing the summit, saying it is meant to be a component of the Philippines-United Nations Joint Programme on Human Rights.
UN resident coordinator for the Philippines Gustavo Gonzalez referred to the joint programme in his speech.
“Next year, as you know, we would embark on something new — a UN Joint Programme for Human Rights in the Philippines. We will work with the Government of the Philippines, with Human Rights Commission, and civil society organizations, and we will draw on international experience and best practices to address human rights challenges,” he said.
“This program seeks to strengthen the accountability mechanisms, promote more rights-based policy approaches, empower rights holders and contribute in bringing the State and civil society closer together,” he added.
Rights groups have criticized the summit.
“A summit on human rights timed to beat deadlines but apparently without the victims and human rights defenders as indispensable stakeholders?,” asked Edre Olalia of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers and Ecuvoice, who actively lobbied for the passage of a stronger UNHRC resolution calling for an independent probe on the human rights situation in the Philippines.
“There is a surfeit of hypocrisy and tokenism in exclusivist echo chambers intended to please than to bring peace,” he said, questioning the lack of inclusivity of the summit.
Rights groups coalition Karapatan finds the summit “ironic.”
“The irony of this so-called Human Rights Summit is not lost on human rights advocates, victims of human rights violations and the general public,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said in a statement.
She pointed out that while the summit is being held:
-Philippine National Police Chief Debold Sinas has ordered his personnel to use rattan sticks on alleged violators of social distancing protocols, even as more than 200,000 individuals have already been arrested and detained with some claiming they were physically tortured;
-alleged extrajudicial killings continue to be committed supposedly by State forces with impunity in its drug war and counterinsurgency operations led by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict;
-the Duterte administration has allegedly intensified its rabid red-tagging rampage against progressive groups, individuals advocates and institutions;
-alleged trumped-up charges based on supposedly planted evidence and perjured testimonies are being filed against activists, critics, and communities;
-critics such as Senator Leila de Lima continue to remain behind bars while Duterte and his allies are allegedly ramping up their spurious legal machinations to intimidate the media such as Maria Ressa and Rappler, to justify the closure of ABS-CBN, and to embolden other attacks on journalists and media workers; and,
-Duterte’s terror law, she says, hangs like a Damocles sword on the exercise of free speech, press freedom, the freedom of association, and the right to political dissent.
“We hope that this irony won’t be lost on those participating in the event, including the international community. The realities on the ground, including the inadequacy of domestic mechanisms of accountability, are plain to see,” Palabay said, insisting on the need for an international, independent, and impartial investigation into a “rapidly deteriorating human rights crisis” in the Philippines.
She noted that the DOJ has yet to issue a report on the status of its “review” on alleged drug-related killings by State actors, which had been cited in the UNHRC resolution as among the Phiippine government’s response which spared it from a full-blown international, independent probe.
Guevarra earlier said it will miss the November deadline to review more than 5,000 deaths in drug-related police operations despite resorting to “sufficient random sampling.”
The Philippine government had also informed the UNHRC about its Administrative Order 35 panel on extrajudicial killings for activists and rights defenders, which, according the justice secretary puts prosecutors at the top of the investigation of cases to ensure “objectivity” especially in cases where law enforcers are themselves accused of abuses.
But rights groups have lamented AO 35 task force’s low conviction rate, with only 13 convictions since it was created in 2012. In contrast, 127 alleged perpetrators have been cleared out of 385 cases as of December 2019.
For BAYAN Secretary General Renato Reyes, Jr., the summit is but an attempt by the Philippine government to “show the world that it is doing something about human rights.”
“We note however that at the end of the day, what matters is if human rights violations are stopped and cases of victims are resolved. We find neither of the two right now,” he said, asking about the status of the killings of peace consultant Randall Echanis and activist Zara Alvarez and other victims of alleged extrajudicial killings.
“Why does red-tagging as government policy persist? Is the summit all for show for the international community or will there be accountability?”
Reyes enumerated what for him are the most urgent issues in the country:
1. Extrajudicial killings of activists and drug suspects;
2. The notorious practice of trumped-up charges and planting of evidence;
3. Red-tagging of government critics, activists and anyone who speaks out on issues;
4. Militarization and the forced surrender of people to pose as NPA rebels; and
5. Disinformation on the state of human rights and the pandemic, as well as attacks on the media.
“If the DOJ will not discuss these issues, then what human rights issues are they addressing? If there is no victim-centered approach, then from whose lens are human rights being addressed?,” he asked.
The Communist Party of the Philippines meanwhile called the summit a “big farce.”
“Kasukasuka at kasuklam-suklam,” it said in a statement.
“It is a gross mockery of human rights. It is a disgusting attempt to artificially dress up the Duterte regime’s gross record of extrajudicial killings and political repression. It is a desperate attempt to repair the Duterte regime’s image of an international outcast.”
The CPP accused the DOJ of being an instrument of tyranny, and Duterte of repeatedly expressing his disgust for human rights.
“It is lamentable that the UNHRC has allowed itself to be dragged into this charade. We trust that the international stalwarts of human rights will continue to stand for the Filipino people in their fight against the Duterte regime’s reign of terror,” it said.
Addressing the audience of the summit in a brief taped video message, Duterte said the summit is “an effective platform for international community to enhance collaboration in the protection and promotion of human rights.”
“I am proud that the Philippines is one of the few countries that signed many of the world’s core human rights treaties,” he said.
“This affirms our serious commitment in honoring and fulfilling our treaty obligations and prioritizing the human rights agenda as a means to achieve our country’s sustainable development goals,” he added.
Duterte did not break away from the prepared speech.
On multiple occasions in the past, he called human rights advocates “enemies” of the Filipino people.
FROM THE ARCHIVES