MANILA - A group of peoples' and civil society organizations on Thursday launched an independent international probe into the human rights situation in the Philippines.
Organized by US-based International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP), the group formed a commission called "InvestigatePH” composed of representatives from various lawyers' and faith-based groups, as well as trade unions in the United States, Canada and Australia.
Among those part of the commission are representatives from US-based National Lawyers' Group (NLG), the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), the United Church of Canada, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the United Methodist Church in the US.
Their Philippine partners include the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), Rise UP and rights groups coalition Karapatan.
The creation of InvestigatePH was prompted by the October 2020 UN Human Rights Council resolution that only called for support for the Philippines human rights promotion through technical cooperation and capacity-building, short of an independent international probe that rights groups have been asking for.
A June 2020 report by United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet had documented widespread human rights violations and persistent impunity in the Philippines.
ICHRP Chair Peter Murphy said they hope the outcome of InvestigatePH will update the Bachelet report and help create an environment for the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Gen Assembly and the International Criminal Court to do their work.
NUPL's Edre Olalia said InvestigatePH's areas of inquiry will include restrictions on freedoms, killings related to the drug trade or use, human rights violations in relation to the pandemic, as well as violations of international humanitarian laws.
He said they will conduct face to face investigations and digital interviews.
Sources will include victims, relatives, different sectors and communities, human rights defenders, civil society groups, resource persons/experts, Philippine government officials, and international governments.
InvestigatePH will cover incidents since the start of the Duterte administration in July 2016 up to end of this year, unless there are supervening events, the group said.
It hopes to submit its report in time for the UNHRC sessions in February, June and September next year.
“The world is getting smaller and smaller, as far as the Philippine government is concerned. The world is closing in, so to speak,” Olalia said, pointing to various groups speaking out -- from the UNHRC, rapporteurs, European Council, members of US Congress, to the ICC prosecutor's latest report.
Jeanne Mirer, co-chair of the National Lawyers' Group International Committee and president of the IADL, said they will make the report available to the Filipino people as an authoritative document which could be used as basis for seeking remedies and for further education.
‘TACTICS OF DUTERTE REGIME AMOUNT TO STATE TERRORISM’
Among those involved in the probe is former Australian Senator Lee Rhiannon who said she found testimonies from PH "worrying", and since her visit to Manila last year, the attacks on the human rights of Filipino people have only escalated.
“This is most definitely a global issue. The world community, I do believe, has a responsibility to speak out. We must not allow the call for human rights to be hijacked. Accountability must be part of the justice and democratic system,” she said.
Rhiannon said that under the Philippine government’s counterinsurgency program, human rights violations go unabated.
“Those who speak out are victimized, often jailed. Planting of false evidence is not uncommon. The tactics of Duterte regime amount to state terrorism. Democracy is slipping away in (the Philippines),” she said.
“The evidence is overwhelming. The testimonies as we know, tragic. What is happening in the Philippines amounts to crimes against humanity. These crimes must end. The rights abuses must be investigated and the perpetrators held to account.”
Rev. Michael Blair, general secretary of the United Church of Canada, said it is important to amplify the voices of Filipinos in the international community, while for Rev. Dr. Chris Ferguson, general secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the probe is speaking truth to power.
“It isn’t simply a research report set through the legal process, but this is a struggle for people to see the end of impunity. We are really trying to mobilize the international community to make this an issue that won’t go away,” he said.
Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe of the United Methodist Church said they will also work in the political arena by supporting moves in the US Congress to call for a review of the US’ aid and economic arrangements with the Philippines, and ask to suspend official development assistance to the Philippine military until it adheres to human rights standards.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines said last Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, that it stands "up for human rights and continues to stand by its principles, even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, in our performance of our mandate."
"The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 will continue to hold us accountable to our commitment to protect human rights, especially in conflict. To this, we urge everyone to join us in resisting radicalization and seeking a just end to all violence," the AFP said in a statement issued by its public affairs office.
‘GENUINE’ DOMESTIC INVESTIGATIONS
The Philippine government had always insisted there was no need for an international probe into the human rights situation in the country because domestic mechanisms are working.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, who once campaigned for the Philippines to ratify the Rome Statute which created the ICC, said on Tuesday the ICC would be wasting time and money if it pursues investigation on the Philippines.
Among the steps the Philippine government took following the Bachelet report was to create a drug review panel to reinvestigate drug war-related killings which was supposed to release an initial report in November.
“There is no accountability. We don’t see anything happening now. The drug review panel was supposed to report on the drug war killings last November, as promised by Secretary Menardo Guevarra before the UN Human Rights Council. But there was none,” Cristina Palabay, secretary general of Karapatan, said.
Palabay noted that anything less than 100% prosecution and conviction rate of perpetrators in both the drug war and other cases of human rights violations is not acceptable.
Olalia reminded that the Philippine government domestic investigations must be “genuine.”
“Token investigations or prosecutions, given the gravity and intensity of the violations, will fail in comparison. Claims and allegations cannot measure up with matters of fact and empirical data. One conviction vis-a-vis more than 5,000 killings speaks volumes,” he said.
“The claim of domestic remedies and its availability to start with is always an excuse to take away the focus of bodies… from looking into the genuineness, effectivity and accessibility of these investigations,” he added.
The DOJ has so far not yet announced when it would release the report of the drug war review panel, seen by many human rights organizations as the Philippine government’s way of evading a full-blown UNHRC probe in the country.
The launch of InvestigatePH follows the release of the ICC Office of the Prosecutor report, saying there is “reasonable basis” to believe that crimes against humanity took place in the country from July 1, 2016 when President Duterte took office until March 16, 2019, when the Philippines’ withdrawal from the ICC took effect.