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MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Thirty-one human rights experts from the United Nations (UN) reiterated on Thursday, June 25, the need for an on-ground, independent, and impartial investigation into the human rights situation in the Philippines.
In addition, the experts, in a joint statement, urged the Human Rights Council to strengthen the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) mandate to continue its monitoring and reporting on the human rights violations in the Philippines and to “call on the ICC to expedite and prioritize the completion of its preliminary examination of the situation in the Philippines.”
The call comes in the wake of a comprehensive report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the widespread killings in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte. (READ: DOCUMENT: U.N. Human Rights report on killings, abuses in PH)
The experts said the report, released on June 4, “confirmed our findings and warnings issued over the last 4 years: widespread and systematic killings and arbitrary detention in the context of the war on drugs, killings and abuses targeting farmers and indigenous peoples, the silencing of independent media, critics, and the opposition.”
“The report also finds, as we had, stark and persistent impunity,” they added.
The experts noted the following key findings in the document:
- Based on the most conservative assessment, since July 2016, 8,663 people have been killed in the war on drugs and 223,780 “drug personalities” arrested, with estimates of triple that number.
- At least 73 children were killed during that period in the context of a campaign against illegal drugs. Concerns have also been raised about grave violations against children committed by State and non-State actors in the context of military operations, including the recruitment and use of children in combat or support. (READ: Children in conflict with the law: On finding hope and fighting fate)
- The lasting economic harm and increased poverty among the children and other family members of those killed is likely to lead to further human rights violations.
- At least 208 human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists, including 30 women, plus at least 40 legal professionals had been killed since 2015, many of whom were working on politically sensitive cases or advocating for land and environmental rights of farmers and indigenous peoples and housing rights of the urban poor.
- The Securities and Exchange Commission in 2018 revoked the license of prominent news website Rappler and its CEO, Maria Ressa, has been arrested multiple times on various charges and found guilty of cyber libel.
- On 5 May 2020, President Duterte’s government ordered the shutdown of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest TV and radio network, after years of explicit threats from the President in part because of its critical reporting on the “war on drugs.”
- There has been no accountability whatsoever for the multiple human rights and humanitarian law violations, limited follow-up on transitional justice and reconciliation in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao; independent investigations by local institutions have been thwarted; many in the opposition silenced, including Senator Leila Norma Eulalia de Lima imprisoned since 24 February 2017.
- President Duterte ordered the country’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court after the tribunal launched a preliminary examination of crimes against humanity committed in the context of the “war on drugs” in 2018. (READ: ‘Hang me’: Duterte vows to never answer Int’l Criminal Court)
The Duterte administration soundly rejected these conclusions.
Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque, in a statement on June 6, said, “The Philippine Government notes the recommendations made by the OHCHR, but cannot commit to their full implementation given the faulty conclusions on which they were premised.”
The UN human rights experts also pointed out that “COVID-19 has further accelerated the downward spiral of the human rights situation in the Philippines,” as both the police and military “have used violence and lethal force to enforce a quarantine imposed without due consideration for the situation of the poorest and most vulnerable communities.”
“In response to the protests of poor Filippinos demanding food aid amid the COVID-19 lockdown, President Duterte reportedly authorized police and security forces to kill protesters saying: ‘Do you understand? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I’ll send you to the grave’.”
Such rhetoric, according to the report of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, could amount to “incitement to violence and may be in violation of the ICCPR’s [International Covenant on Civil and Political Right’s] prohibition on arbitrary deprivation of life.”
Concerns about anti-terror bill
The experts also warned that the government’s attempt to fast track a new Anti-Terrorism Bill “will further dilute human rights safeguards, by justifying the arrests of human rights defenders and government’s critics, authorising lengthy detention based on warrantless arrests, wiretapping and other surveillance for extended periods of time.
Domestic mechanisms intended to ensure accountability and protect the rule of law, according to the UN experts, “have failed to do so.”
The UN human rights experts said the situation in the Philippines has reached a “level of gravity requiring a robust intervention by the UN. The Human Rights Council must do everything in its power to prevent the continuation of widespread and systematic human rights abuses against the Philippines people.”
They called on the government to demonstrate “real and credible progress toward accountability” by “developing an action plan” that would implement the OHCHR Report recommendations.
The 31 experts – who included among others, Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Diego García-Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers; and David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression – called on member states “to initiate, whenever possible, governmental sanctions and criminal prosecution against individual Philippine officials who have committed, incited or failed to prevent human rights abuses.” – Rappler.com