Commentary  Justice Articles 

The Philippines in Focus at the UN HRC

Rights Groups Call on the UN Human Rights Council to Launch Investigation into Extrajudicial Killings

The Philippines in Focus at the UN HRC

Rights Groups Call on the UN Human Rights Council to Launch Investigation into Extrajudicial Killings

By Maya Garner

As the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) hosts its 45th session, prominent human rights organizations call on the UN to “intensify pressure” on the Philippines to end ongoing human rights violations, extrajudicial killings and impunity. The UN Human Rights Office had previously published a report at the HRC session in June, which highlighted how long-standing violations in the Philippines have escalated over the recent years. The report cited concerns of national security, specifically counter-terrorism and illegal drug offenses, as pretenses behind significant human rights violations, such as killings, arbitrary detention and crackdown on dissent. Ahead of the ongoing HRC session, which began on September 14th and is due to commence on October 7th, a coalition of 60 organizations (including Human Rights Watch) called on the UN HRC to launch an independent international investigation into extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. In a similar response to the UN HRC session, on September 25th Amnesty International made public its new briefing “My Job is to Kill”: Ongoing Human Rights Violations in the Philippines.

The UN Human Rights Office reported that at least 8,663 people had been killed and 223,780 “drug personalities” arrested since the Philippines announced its war on drugs in 2016 when President Rodrigo Duterte came into power. Furthermore, at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists and trade unionists had been killed between 2015-2019. The concern of “red-tagging” of human rights defenders by labeling them as communists or terrorists was also a particularly significant issue. In response to the report, 11 UN human rights experts renewed their call from the previous year for an impartial international investigation. Spokesperson for Human Rights Watch Laila Matar stated that the call for an international investigation was “a remarkable show of solidarity that members of the UN Human Rights Council should not ignore.” The 60 organizations, including Human Rights Watch, sent a letter to UN member states and observer countries in late August, expressing “grave concern” at the violations and extrajudicial executions in the Philippines. More than 30 of those who signed on to the letter were human rights and civil society groups from the Philippines. In response to the narrative presented by the Philippines at the 44th HRC session in June, which sought to avert government responsibility over the killings, Matar stated that “the Duterte administration is once again pulling out all the stops to get the Philippines out of the spotlight and off the agenda of the Human Rights Council.” Matar called for countries to not buy into this “misleading campaign” and rather “demand accountability through a strong resolution that recognizes that the human rights situation in the Philippines has not improved and ensures investigations.” As the UN HRC has now entered into its 45th session, the call for a meaningful investigation is more important than ever.

On the first day of the HRC session, Matar released a statement calling for member states to be “bold” and “principled” on the Philippines. Matar identified a number of misinformation “tricks” from the Philippine government, such presenting misleading or confusing data, and claiming that the government itself has the ability to provide accountability for the violations through the dubious Philippine Justice Department “review panel.” As Human Rights Watch found that “drug war”-related killings rose by 50 percent during the COVID-19 lockdown, Matar’s call for action from UN member states during the HRC session comes at an absolute crucial moment.

At Item 2 of the General Debate of the HRC on September 15th, a joint statement by Denmark on behalf of 29 countries emphasized the “ongoing reports of extrajudicial killings in the context of the ‘war on drugs’ that have a widespread and systematic character” in the Philippines and highlighted “insurmountable” obstacles to justice in the form of impunity for security forces over violations, as well as the harassment and violence faced by human rights defenders, journalists and critics of the government. The statement, which focused on the Philippines alongside Saudi Arabia and China, mentioned that these three states “are all either Council members or candidates” and concluded that “the Human Rights Council should not be a place where violators come to seek shelter, but one where they are appropriately subject to heightened scrutiny of their rights records.”

Amnesty International’s briefing, released on September 25, takes its title from a speech made in March 2020 by President Duterte, in which he stated: “It is my job to scare people, to intimidate people, and to kill people.” Alongside the briefing, Amnesty International joined the coalition of organizations calling on the UN HRC to establish an independent body to “conduct an in-depth investigation into human rights violations and abuses committed in the Philippines since 2016.” In the time since 2016, President Duterte has turned the Philippines into “a bloodbath where police and unidentified vigilantes are free to kill as they please,” according to Philippines Researcher Rachel Chhoa-Howard with Amnesty International. Chhoa-Howard denounced the government-appointed panel set to ensure accountability for the violations, labeling it “not credible” and stating that it “cannot deliver justice.” Chhoa-Howard called on the HRC to “not back down now” and instead send a clear message to the Philippine government that ”the world is watching and we will not let impunity prevail.” Similar to the statements made by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International emphasized the Philippine government cannot investigate itself as impunity and incitement toward violence is found at the “highest level of government.” The situation in the Philippines is dire and only set to worsen if the international community does not act now. Now in session, the UN HRC should adhere to the call of the human rights organizations and launch an urgent international investigation as a step toward combating the impunity in the Philippines, ensuring that the world is indeed watching.