On U.N. resolution vs drug war killings: What if Duterte blocks review?

Jodesz Gavilan

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On U.N. resolution vs drug war killings: What if Duterte blocks review?
Human Rights Watch's Carlos Conde says the Duterte government risks turning the Philippines into an 'international pariah' if it refuses to cooperate with the UN office

MANILA, Philippines – The Duterte administration has been on the defensive since the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution seeking actions against the killings carried out under the war on drugs.

The reactions, so far, have been consistent with President Rodrigo Duterte’s general disdain for Western interference – Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr threatened countries that supported the resolution with “far-reaching consequences,” while Malacañang called it “grotesquely one-sided, outrageously narrow, and maliciously partisan.” 

Many Duterte allies even dismissed the UN resolution, calling it unenforceable, among others. Human rights groups, meanwhile, hit the government for its disinformation campaign which, they said, is a way to elude accountability over the drug war killings. 

Beyond the noise, here’s what you need to know about the UN resolution: 

What is the UN resolution asking for in relation to the drug war killings? How important is the report?

The Iceland-initiated resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on July 11 seeks 3 things: 

  • For UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet to write a comprehensive report on the situation in the Philippines and present it to the council
  • For the Philippine government to cooperate with UN offices, mechanisms, and experts by facilitating country visits and “refraining from all acts of intimidation or retaliation”
  • For the Philippine government to do everything it can to prevent extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances and to hold perpetrators accountable by carrying out impartial investigations, among others

The major point of the resolution is the “comprehensive written report” Bachelet and her team from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) were requested to do on the situation in the country.

This is not the first time the UNHRC sought this report from Bachelet. In 2018, the council adopted a resolution which called for the same comprehensive report on Venezuela. 

Many human rights groups called the resolution “modest” and different from instructions the council had given to other countries in different instances.

“It doesn’t even use the word investigation in the language of the resolution,” Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said. “This is modest because it merely asks OHCHR to come up with a report.” 

Other resolutions are usually more explicit with what are requested, Conde said. For example, there are reporting periods and that the OHCHR is asked to conduct oral updates before the council finishes its report. There are also instances when the resolution clearly asks for an inquiry, investigation, or fact-finding. 

Oral updates before the UNHRC could benefit the Philippine situation, Conde said, given the continuous killings under Duterte’s drug war. 

“We wanted to have a periodic update or reporting from the office of Bachelet before the UNHRC because the killings happen on a daily basis and we think that waiting for one more year before the council will know any sort of update on the situation on the ground is just too long,” he said in a mix of Filipino and English. 

While described by many as “modest,” the resolution and the eventual report are still seen as an important step for victims of human rights violations in the Philippines, particularly those killed under Duterte’s war on drugs. 

“It is still a big step in the response of the international community because this opens the door for a more significant future action by the UNHRC,” Conde said.

How will Bachelet and the OHCHR come up with the report?

The UN rights council asks for a comprehensive written report, not a full-blown investigation. Despite this, Conde said that it actually gives more space for Bachelet to identify how best to do her report on the Philippine situation.  

Mas may leeway actually ang OHCHR kung anong pamamaraan ang gagawin niya, kung papaano niya matitingnan ang situation on the ground,” he told Rappler. (There’s more leeway for the OHCHR to decide the best way to do its task, or how it will look at the situation on the ground.)

“Only when Bachelet comes out with the step-by-step way of doing this can we truly know for sure what she’s going to do but she has many options,” Conde added. 

It’s important to note that Bachelet had previously said her office is monitoring the situation in the Philippines. (READ: U.N. rights chief: Deaths in PH anti-drug operations a ‘most serious concern’)

The program budget implications presented alongside the resolution before the UNHRC shows a glimpse of the future process. It says two staff members would conduct 3 visits, spanning 10 days each, to the Philippines or neighboring countries “to conduct investigations through interviews and meetings with all concerned stakeholders.”

While it is still too early to fully know how the OHCHR will do its task, other instances may give the public an idea on how Bachelet and her office work on reports. (READ: What happened when the U.N. reviewed Venezuela’s human rights situation?)

For example, for the Venezuela report, OHCHR interviewed at least 558 victims and witnesses of human rights violations and had 159 meetings with various sources, including government officials and civil society organizations.

The team also conducted a visit for 11 days in March 2019 to at least 8 countries where Venezuelan refugees and migrants are present. 

Bachelet herself visited Venezuela from June 19 to 21 in 2019 and met with several key officials, including Maduro, as well as with victims and their families. She said during the 40th UNHRC Session that her visit enabled her to “hear first-hand the accounts of victims of State violence and their demands for justice.” 

What if the Duterte government refuses to comply with the resolution or cooperate with the UN office? 

It is safe to assume that the OHCHR will have a hard time dealing with the Philippine government, based on the recent reactions and statements of the administration and Duterte’s general aversion to independent reviews of his policies. 

Locsin, in a tweet on July 12, said that “any probe resulting from the narrow vote for Iceland resolution will not be allowed into the Philippines.”

But the report is not dependent on whether or not they will be allowed to enter the Philippines as the team can still do remote monitoring or try other ways to gather information. In the case of the 2018 report on Venezuela, the government did not provide access to the team so they conducted remote monitoring. 

Invitations from the Philippines, or any country subjected to a review, is a prerequisite to any UN mission. Considering the importance of face-to-face interviews with victims and other stakeholders, field visits are vital components of the review the UN rights office is expected to do.  

Conde said the “ball is in the court of the President” now. But if the Philippine government further toughens its stand and blocks any effort, the UN Human Rights Council can discuss further actions and explore other options. 

“The success of this resolution depends a lot on the willingness of the government to cooperate with Bachelet’s office,” he said. “The UN cannot just unilaterally act on its own and come to the country and investigate, they have to have the cooperation of the national government.” 

Non-cooperation and non-compliance with the resolution will also just further impact on the image of the Philippines and the Duterte administration.

“We’ll become an international pariah,” Conde said. “That would be a pity.”

What’s next when the UN rights office is done with the report? 

Bachelet is expected to present her comprehensive written report on the Philippines in June 2020 or during the council’s 44th session. Aside from the findings, the UN rights chief will also come up with recommendations on what do to next. 

According to the resolution, there will also be an “enhanced interactive dialogue” on the report findings on the human rights situation in the country.

According to Conde, the UNHRC will determine what the best course of action is but the options include authorizing a commission on inquiry or even a fact-finding mission. A bigger and full-blown investigation may also be authorized by the council while sanctions, although being floated by many personalities, may be too premature for now. 

The report and its findings may also be taken into consideration by other international bodies, such as the International Criminal Court, in the conduct of their own examination of the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. 

Until then, the public can expect stronger resistance from the Philippine government – especially once the report is presented and tackled by the UN Human Rights Council.

“Given the conduct of the Philippine delegation in Geneva, we expect them to do a lot of push back next year and it’s going to be interesting to see that,” he said. 

“They’re going to try their best to block any more efforts to castigate or scrutinize the Philippines,” Conde added. – Rappler.com

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.