By Manuel Mogato
The 41st session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on July 11.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Thursday narrowly voted to adopt a resolution condemning the situation in the Philippines and demanding accountability by seriously investigating thousands of deaths due to President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug war.
The resolution, initiated by Iceland and supported by 17 other mostly Western countries, requested the United Nation’s human rights office (OHCHR) to prepare a detailed report on the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. It was opposed by 14 countries and the rest of the 47 states in the council abstained.
Human rights advocates rejoiced on the UNHRC decision, with Agnes Callamard, the French human rights expert and UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, calling it a “victory” and a clear message to all human rights victims that they have been finally heard.
However, the UNHRC resolution could become an empty victory. The Philippines can choose to ignore it as other countries with terrible human rights records have done in the past. Like any United Nations resolution, it is not legally binding.
Duterte’s spokesman and chief presidential legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, was right when he said the resolution “was designed to embarrass the Philippines before the international community and the global audience.”
The only immediate effect of the resolution was to shame the Philippines, but this is a big deal for most Asians, including the Philippines, which value reputation. The Philippines has painstakingly built an image of a responsible, decent and civilized member of the international community, but being lumped together now with states like Myanmar and Cambodia in Southeast Asia, which have been singled out as human rights abusers, is the worst case of losing face.
It will be very difficult now for the Philippines to keep its moral high ground and criticize other states for human rights violations when it cannot clean up the mess in its own backyard. Dead bodies continue to pile up; an average of five persons get killed every week in anti-drug police operations in slum areas in the capital and nearby provinces of Bulacan, Laguna and Cavite.
In 2002, the late foreign affairs secretary Blas Ople openly spoke against the human rights abuses in military-ruled Myanmar, earning the Philippines praises from Western countries and some Asian states, like Japan.
Filipino diplomats walked tall and proud in international conferences for championing rights issues, including democratization, especially after the Philippines ousted a leader accused of corruption in 2001 and a dictator in 1986.
That is hard to do now under Duterte, who in a speech a few weeks ago said extrajudicial killings were better than corruption. But, the killings are corrupting the soul of Filipinos, the biggest Roman Catholic country in this part of the world. The Catholic Church proclaims human life is sacred and that the human person is the foundation of a moral vision of society. After all, Jesus’ commandment is to love one another.
Human rights abuses and violations in the Philippines are not unique under the Duterte administration. During the time of the dictatorship, rights abuses were rampant and more than 10,000 people had filed cases, claiming compensation for deaths, disappearances, imprisonment and torture during Ferdinand Marcos’ iron-fisted rule.
The restoration of democracy in 1986 did not guarantee a human rights abuse-free environment as complaints against state actors continued, although to a much lesser degree. Cases shot up in 2007 during the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo with more than 1,000 student activists, community organizers, lawyers and journalists killed by death squads.
Philip Alston, an Australian lawyer and human rights expert, conducted a fact-finding investigation in the Philippines in his role as UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions. Looking at the political killings at that time vis-à-vis the government’s counter-insurgency campaign, he found that a culture of impunity prevailed within the military, and the government had not done enough to address the problem and to protect the rights of the people.
The scale and magnitude of killings under Marcos and Arroyo could pale in comparison with the current situation. Human rights advocates claim that more than 27,000 people, mostly poor in slum areas, have been killed in the drug war that began in mid-2016. The figures are debatable, with the national police acknowledging only 6,600 deaths in anti-drug operations, mostly in sting (buy-bust) operations that ended up in shootouts between law enforcement and drug dealers, majority of them street-level peddlers.
The UNHRC resolution appears ineffective because it can only demand accountability but cannot impose sanctions, unlike those issued by the powerful UN Security Council.
Individual countries could, however, use the UNHRC resolution to slap trade and political sanctions, like what Washington did when some US senators opposed the sale of 26,000 assault rifles to the Philippine National Police due to its human rights record.
Last year, Canada also imposed restrictions on the sale of 16 utility helicopters because it was worried the aircraft could be used in fighting Maoist-led guerrillas in counter-insurgency operations.
In past, the US set a cap on military aid to the Philippines due to human rights violations by soldiers.
But the Philippines can face more severe economic sanctions, especially from Europe and other major trading partners, if they remove preferential trade regimes or even deny entry of goods and services from the Philippines.
Shaming the Philippines could be benign actions but harsher actions might be taken to pressure the government to do something on the worsening human rights situation.
Manuel “Manny” Mogato has been a journalist for 35 years. A former Reuters correspondent, Mogato covered politics, disasters, insurgencies and diplomacy. He won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 2018.