Delegates wearing protective masks attend the 44th session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations’ European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 29. (Photo: AFP)
In a rare almost empty session hall in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council started its 44th session on June 30.
Once again, the Philippines was subjected to global scrutiny. The session coincided with the fourth year of President Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency. The participation of states and non-government organizations (NGOs) was mostly done online due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Former president of Chile and UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet summarized an Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) report on the Philippines citing among other things the crafting of laws and policies against national security threats and illegal drugs, resulting in “thousands of killings, arbitrary detentions and vilification of those who challenge these severe human rights violations.”
Bachelet also noted the Philippines’ refusal to grant her mandatory access to the Philippines. Moreover, the report describes the Philippine state of human rights as “near impunity.”
Urging Duterte to refrain from signing an anti-terrorism bill, she called for the initiation of a broad-based consultation process to draft the legislation and offered her office to assist in such a review.
The report also noted serious human rights violations including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, torture and pandemic-related rights violations.
In an interactive dialogue, where both NGOs and member states have speaking rights, members of the EU expressed grave concerns about the sorry state of human rights in the Philippines and reiterated some of their earlier recommendations during the Philippines’ Third Cycle of the Universal Periodic Review.
ASEAN and some Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Cuba, meanwhile, cited the importance of constructive dialogue and praised the Philippines for its progress on human rights and the rule of law, poverty reduction and positive engagement with the OHCHR.
Albeit limited in number because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the voice of civil society echoed in all the nooks and crannies of the session hall.
Taking the floor were the World Organisation against Torture, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, Human Rights Watch, Franciscans International, Amnesty International, CIVICUS, International Commission of Jurists, COC Nederland, the International Federation for Human Rights Leagues, and the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund.
On behalf of the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund, Franciscans International, Task Force Detainees of the Philippines and the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines, Carmelite Father Christian Buenafe enumerated human rights violations such as arrests, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture.
He mentioned Sister Mary John Mananzan and Ritz Lee as prominent defenders, red-tagged (branded communist rebel supporters) by the government, and added that the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates and the Medical Action group were also accused of being part of a network of communist terrorists.
Ateneo Human Rights Center executive director Ray Paulo Santiago spoke of the imminent anti-terrorism law giving wider discretion to an already high incidence of warrantless arrests. He likewise acknowledged progress in law-making, policy-setting papers and the resolve of government workers to make the Philippines a better place to live in.
The International Federation for Human Rights expressed concern over Duterte’s “threats to issue shoot-to-kill instructions to deal with Covid-19 lockdown breakers and to declare a martial law-like virus crackdown” as troubling and reminiscent of his disastrous rhetoric in his so-called war on drugs.
Moreover, the group mentioned the conviction of Maria Ressa on politically motivated charges, the proposed anti-terror bill and prison conditions vis-à-vis the Covid-19 pandemic.
The World Organization Against Torture expressed concern about the killings of 122 children, said to be victims of “collateral damage” who were killed during the war on drugs. Moreover, the group stated that the killings were perpetrated by the police.
A Philippine government representative, Justice Secretary Mendaro Guevarra, stated that President Duterte ran and won on a campaign promise of a drug-free Philippines. Claims of impunity or near impunity in the country “found no anchor in a system that provided every avenue to establish and pursue a claim of wrongdoing by a state actor, if such were substantiated with facts.”
Commissioner Karen Dumpit of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights said the Philippines must enable accountability mechanisms, account for every killing, provide effective protection to victims and whistleblowers and prosecute perpetrators. She said that the commission “stands together with the victims, disadvantaged groups and human rights defenders in valuing the [Human Rights] Council as the fulcrum of international discourse and cooperation for the protection of all human rights.”
The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the UN composed of 47 states responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights. It serves as a watchdog of the UN member states’ observance of the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights.
The UN has no power to prosecute. Its most powerful sanction is an international embarrassment, which affects the concerned states’ credibility before the international community.
In a predominantly Catholic country like the Philippines, respect, promotion and defense of human rights are a moral imperative.
Mary Aileen D. Bacalso is former secretary-general of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances. For her work against enforced disappearances, she was awarded the 2019 Franco-German Ministerial Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law. In 2013, the Argentine government awarded her the Emilio F. Mignone International Human Rights Prize. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.