human rights in the Philippines

Marcos’ ‘toothless’ human rights body: Questionable composition, for political gain?

Jairo Bolledo

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Marcos’ ‘toothless’ human rights body: Questionable composition, for political gain?
Groups see Marcos' new human rights body as a political move, rather than a genuine effort to address the human rights situation in the country

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has already made it clear: he will not abolish the government’s anti-insurgency task force, the government body responsible for red-tagging activists and progressive groups. 

Ang sinasabi, dahil mayroon raw red-tagging na ginagawa. Hindi naman gobyerno gumagawa noon. Kung sino-sinong iba ang gumagawa noon,” Marcos said during an ambush interview on Thursday, May 16. (They want to abolish NTF-ELCAC [National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict] due to supposed red-tagging activities. The government does not do that, but other people.)

But since it was established by former president Rodrigo Duterte in 2018 through Executive Order No. 70, the NTF-ELCAC has been the government’s main vehicle to link progressive groups to communist rebels. This was shown by former NTF-ELCAC spokespersons, retired military general Antonio Parlade and Lorraine Badoy-Partosa.

Ironically, Marcos’ defense of the anti-insurgency task force coincided with his creation in the same week of his so-called human rights “super body.”

Through Administrative Order (AO) No. 22, Marcos established the government’s Special Committee on Human Rights Coordination that will “enhance the mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines.”

Among the special committee’s duties are:

  • Investigation and accountability
  • Data gathering on alleged human rights violations committed by law enforcement agencies
  • Human rights-based approach for drug control, counter-terrorism
  • Facilitate access to redress mechanism by victims of human rights violations
Political move

Human rights groups saw Marcos’ AO 22 as a political move, rather than a genuine effort to address the human rights situation in the Philippines.

“This is part of Mr. Marcos’ charm offensive with the international community,” Human Rights Watch senior researcher Carlos Conde said in Rappler Talk interview.

Several experts have been noting that some of Marcos’ policies were intended to build his good image for the international community. Maria Ela Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman, earlier told Rappler that the human rights improvements in the country could only be the incumbent President’s strategy to distinguish himself from the past administration in terms of his international image, diplomacy, and foreign policy.

Contrary to its predecessor that faced international criticism and scrutiny, the Marcos administration has been courting the international community and presenting itself as “a good global nation,” Atienza noted.

Conde, citing human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, said that the signing of the AO could be part of the Philippine government’s strategy to win a seat at the United Nations (UN) Security Council. Since 2022, the Marcos government has been eyeing a seat at the UN body. Interior chief Benhur Abalos recently reiterated the government’s bid to earn a seat at the council.

Membership with the UN Security Council would be important for the Marcos government because the council is the UN’s most powerful body. It is tasked to ensure “international peace and security in accordance with the principles and purposes of the United Nations.”

Other UN bodies can only make recommendations to its member states, but the UN Security Council “has the power to make decisions that member states are then obligated to implement under the Charter.” The Philippines has been a non-permanent member of the body in various occasions: 1957, 1963, from 1980 to 1981, and from 2004 to 2005.

Marcos’ ‘toothless’ human rights body: Questionable composition, for political gain?
Past AO

This was not the first time a president signed an AO to address human rights problems in the country. In 2012, late former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III signed AO No. 35, created to investigate political killings or deaths of people with known advocacies or political causes.

The AO was heavily criticized, especially under Duterte, because at around 2017, the body recorded zero cases despite the continuous killings related to the drug war at the time. As of 2019, the panel produced only 13 convictions out of the accumulated 385 cases it has handled. Around 127 suspects were cleared, which include state agents.

Aquino’s AO was applied to the “Bloody Sunday” killings, where at least nine activists were killed, and six others were arrested in March 2021.

Through the AO, then-justice secretary, now Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra moved to sue the cops involved in the killing of labor leader Manny Asuncion, who died in the Bloody Sunday operations. As chair-agency of AO 35, the Department of Justice (DOJ) also probed the death of couple Ariel Evangelista and Ana Mariz “Chai” Lemita-Evangelista, who also perished in the said operations.

But under DOJ Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla, both the complaints against Asuncion and the Evangelista couple were junked by the justice department.

“However, regardless of how many committees or task forces are created – like the Inter-Agency Task Force on political killings under AO 35 or the Inter-Agency Committee on labor cases under EO 23 – there will be no genuine improvement in the human rights situation if abuses are allowed to persist with impunity,” the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) said.

“The architecture of impunity is deeply embedded in counterinsurgency programs and counter-terrorism policies that foster grave violations of human rights and breaches of international humanitarian law. These systemic roots of violations remain unaddressed, permitting state security forces to operate without accountability,” it added.

Continuation of UN initiative?

Amid the killings under Duterte’s drug war, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) issued a resolution in 2020 to provide technical assistance to the Philippine government to address human rights concerns. This spared the Duterte government from tighter scrutiny.

In 2021, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Program (UNJP) was signed to start the technical cooperation or assistance of the UNHRC to the Philippines. The program is set to expire on July 31 this year.

Marcos said the new human rights body will be used for the “institutionalization of a robust multi-stakeholder process for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines,” since it’s important to “sustain and enhance” the accomplishments under the UNJP.

However, there have been consistent criticisms against the UNJP from human rights groups for years now.

Former UN special rapporteur for summary executions and now Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard, in 2021, called the UN resolution “shameful” because it “failed to address the massive killings, sending dangerous messages that justice can be denied,” and that the “international community had fell for pretend accountability.” 

Human rights group In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND) said there has been no formal assessment of the accomplishments of the UNJP in exacting accountability under Duterte’s drug war. iDEFEND added that the UN has not made an assessment “of the UNJP in meeting the recommendations of the UN High Commissioner’s report on the Philippines.”

Conde said that the UNJP was hampered by the pandemic, affecting its implementation. The Philippine government did not also fully cooperate with the program during its initial years, which delayed the enforcement of the project, Conde explained.

“If you’re going to sustain something, if you’re going to continue doing that something, it’s on the assumption or on the knowledge that, that something is working, is beneficial,” Conde said in a Rappler Talk interview.

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Questionable structure

Unlike the UNJP enforced by the UN, Marcos’ new “super body” will only be led by government officials.

The new human rights body is chaired by Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, co-chaired by Justice Secretary Remulla, with Interior chief Abalos and Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo as members.

Conde said the UNJP did not work well as it should despite the involvement of the UN, non-government organizations (NGO), and civil society organizations. Yet, Marcos’ new body has no direct participation from these groups, including the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the independent constitutional commission mandated to uphold human rights.

“Without involving them, without even talking to them in the initial stages of the creation of this committee, that can only mean that this is designed for something else. That this is not for accountability, and this is not with the end in view of, you know, getting justice for the victims of human rights abuses in the Philippines,” the HRW senior researcher said.

Aside from this, there were also criticisms of the composition of the new body.

Bersamin is the the anti-terror council’s (ATC) chairperson that enforces the draconian anti-terror law. Remulla, Abalos, and Manalo, meanwhile, are ATC members. The ATC holds the arbitrary power to designate who will be considered terrorists. This was considered dangerous by many activists, who challenged the law, because the ATC can designate anyone without going to trial.

In addition, Abalos oversees the Philippine National Police, which implemented Duterte’s drug war that took thousands of lives.

“What it means is that, you know, the committee is one big echo chamber, basically, of agencies that have questionable track record on human rights and are now in a position to mislead the world about what’s happening in the Philippines,” Conde said.

What should be done instead

If Marcos is really serious about addressing the dire human rights situation in the country, there’s a long list of things he should do instead.

“There are a lot of things that can do to show that. Not some, not another layer of bureaucracy that we fear would just be, you know, useless. Toothless is what we call it,” Conde said.

For the HRW senior researcher, the President can show his willingness by cooperating with the International Criminal Court in its probe into killings under Duterte. Marcos can also retract the government’s drug war policy that continues to exist. The sitting president has yet to repeal or retract his predecessor’s memorandum that operationalized Oplan Tokhang, where cops were told they can “neutralize” resisting suspects.

Third, Marcos should also eliminate red-tagging in the government, Conde said, which the Supreme Court recently acknowledged as a threat against one’s life, liberty, and security.

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“We do not need another ‘coordination’ mechanism designed merely to placate growing outrage over escalating human rights violations. True accountability and justice demand taking responsibility for extrajudicial killings and other gross human rights and IHL violations and ensuring that these atrocities are prevented from recurring,” the NUPL said. –

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Jairo Bolledo

Jairo Bolledo is a multimedia reporter at Rappler covering justice, police, and crime.