human rights in the Philippines

Politics steered UN council away from tougher stance on PH human rights problem

Lian Buan

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Politics steered UN council away from tougher stance on PH human rights problem

CREDIBILITY. Human Rights Watch says UN Human Rights Council credibility at stake if they don't act on killings in the Philippines.

Agence France-Presse

'Unfortunately when we're talking about international relations, the countries talk about political dealings, what we call as the quid pro quo,' says Ateneo Human Rights Center executive director Ray Paolo Santiago

How did the United Nations (UN) go from saying the Philippine government was not doing enough to exact accountability for the high number of killings in the country, to passing a resolution that recognized government efforts and even offered assistance?


“Unfortunately when we’re talking about international relations, the countries talk about political dealings, what we call as the quid pro quo,” said Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) executive director Ray Paolo Santiago in a joint press conference of human rights groups on Thursday, October 8.

Santiago was reacting to the latest UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution that offered technical assistance to the Philippine government in investigating human rights abuses. It fell short of launching its own independent investigation.

The resolution was proposed before the council by the Philippines, India, and Nepal, and UNHRC non-members Hungary, Iceland, Norway, Thailand, and Turkey.

Human rights advocates called it an “improvement” from the so-called zero draft introduced jointly by the Philippines and Iceland during informal meetings in September 2020. That draft was slammed by various civil society organizations as falling short of the expectations of victims and human rights groups.

It was only in June when the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said in a scathing report that the Duterte government’s war on drugs was done “without due regard for the rule of law.” 

The OHCHR said it also found evidence that policemen planted guns in crime scenes.

The difference is that the OHCHR is the human rights office of the UN, while the UNHRC is composed of member-countries, where there is politics. (READ: More killings feared if UN Human Rights Council fails to act vs impunity in PH)

“Unlike other international platforms, the human rights council is political in nature. There are patterns of voting, there are individual state interests, regional state interests, there are behind-the-scenes lobbying, and quid pro quo,” said Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL).

“There is also this concern that a different kind of approach to a human rights situation in a particular country can boomerang against those who are going to support it,” Olalia added.

Philippine Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra spoke to the UNHRC in June and announced there the creation of a drug war panel that would reinvestigate 5,655 deaths in legitimate police anti-drug operations.

And just last September, the international community-allergic President Rodrigo Duterte made history by appearing for the first time before the UN General Assembly. 

Friends again?

Santiago called the UNHRC resolution “anti-climactic,” especially after a scathing report by the OHCHR.

Santiago asked: Did the Philippine government even admit or accept the findings of the OHCHR?

“Parang anti-climactic ‘yung most recent resolution ng UN Human Rights Council ngayon na let’s go towards merely technical cooperation. Parang, friends ulit?” Santiago said.

(The recent UN Human Rights Council resolution seems anti-climactic in saying let’s go towards merely technical cooperation. It’s as if we’re friends again?)

“Is there an admission or acceptance by the Philippines that the report of the UN High Commissioner was actually accurate for it to say ‘Let’s work on this’?” Santiago added.

Santiago and the AHRC have been working with the Department of Justice (DOJ) in its Administrative Order No. (AO) 35 task force which investigates extrajudicial killings outside of the drug war. (READ: DOJ’s task force vs EJK: Few convicted, most perpetrators cleared)

It’s the DOJ that is at the center of the Duterte government’s effort to be shielded from international investigation. The DOJ’s latest projects – done only in 2020 – are what the UNHRC cited in its latest resolution.

While Santiago acknowledged good work by some people in government, he said these are not reflected by the rhetoric of top officials. (PODCAST: Law of Duterte Land: Can we trust the gov’t panel probing drug war deaths?)

‘How can we measure sincerity?’

“Parang magkaiba ‘yung gustong gawin nung mga gustong sumulong ng mga karapatang pantao laban dun sa mga sinasabi ng mga nasa higher levels of political echelons, so ibig sabihin, paano masu-sustain ‘yung sinasabi na meron namang small positive steps? How can we measure the sincerity?” Santiago said. 

(There’s a disconnect between what the human rights defenders are trying to do and what the people in higher level of political echelons are saying, so how do we sustain these so-called small positive steps? How can we measure the sincerity?)

Olalia said the political plays would be measured by one thing: their real impact on the victims.

Lean Porquia, the son of activist Jory Porquia who was killed in April, said that so far he has not felt the impact from government.

“When tatay (my father) was killed, we did not hear anything from the government condemning the killings. It took a lot of pressure from peoples’ organizations before Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque made a statement. It had to take a series of killings,” said Porquia.

“These are not just ordinary citizens. These are human rights defenders. But we haven’t really heard from the justice department condemning the killings,” said Porquia. –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.