A recent survey by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) found that 60% of adult Filipinos agreed that the government should not block the investigation of international groups into drug-related killings.

While the result was a product of field interviews held in June for the pollster’s Second Quarter 2019 Social Weather Survey, it coincided neatly with the July adoption  of an Iceland-led resolution before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The resolution requested the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to prepare and present a “comprehensive written report” on the human rights situation in the Philippines.

Strong public support for international involvement and, correspondingly, the international community’s willingness to engage the Philippine government through the UN system both bode well in clarifying the State’s accountabilities on the thousands of killings that has occurred in relation to the so-called war on drugs as well as the general human rights situation in the country.

To further understand the resolution, and what it means for human rights in the Philippines under Pres. Duterte, PhilRights reached out to two key figures who were part of the mission in Geneva which lobbied for the resolution’s adoption:  Ellecer Carlos, of the In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND), and Rose Trajano, of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA).

The Geneva Missions

Carlos described the resolution as a result of an “arduous process.”

“This is inclusive of our collective efforts of all the missions of our International Affairs Committee, including the lobby work and the consolidation of the stakeholders, both [in the Philippines] and in Europe,” said Carlos. 

He also explained that the task of calling the attention of Human Rights Council member countries on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines go way back to September 2016, given the “sharp uptick of killings” once President Duterte assumed his presidency and launched the so-called war on drugs. 

Indeed, the scope of the missions extend across Europe, and not just on issues of extrajudicial killings but on the Philippines’ general human rights situation, both at present and in the past, with previous administrations. Trajano highlights PAHRA’s active engagements on the Philippines’ reporting for the Universal Periodic Review , a UN mechanism that regularly reviews the human rights record of all UN member countries.

Back in Geneva, a host of other organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and FORUM-ASIA, have formed with PAHRA and iDEFEND a loose solidarity group for the Philippines. They have engaged countries by reporting on the situation in the Philippines and urging their government representatives to call the Philippines’ attention through statements, for example, of which Iceland has already led three. (1, 2, 3

What the resolution asked for and what it didn’t

Carlos and Trajano agreed that the adopted resolution is a “modest ask” that does not go as far as they originally hoped for.  

“We were actually gunning for a resolution that  establishes an international independent investigation, leading to the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry or a fact-finding mission,” explained Carlos.

By June, however, the solidarity group felt that not enough member States of the HRC would support such a drastic move. A difficult ask such as this, if it loses out, halts momentum built over years of diplomatic engagements.

The resolution, in its adopted form, has three specific requests. The first two is directed at the Philippine government to “take all necessary measures to prevent extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, to carry out impartial investigations and to hold perpetrators accountable”  and “to cooperate with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council.”

“At the core of the three asks is the third ask for the High Commissioner of the OHCHR to do comprehensive monitoring and do a comprehensive report on the human rights situation in the Philippines,” said Carlos. 

Despite being more modest in its aims, the resolution’s adoption is still a victory for everyone concerned about the Philippines’ human rights situation. At the same time, Carlos notes that the fact that a resolution was even necessary is very concerning. “That means the bilateral modes of productive engagement with the Philippine government is not possible anymore. So the resolution actually became the last recourse.”

Trajano also believes that this resolution has gained more import given the Philippine government’s decision to withdraw from the Rome Statute, thereby also withdrawing from the International Criminal Court. “This resolution is even more critical because while we lost access to an international body, we now have another international human rights body to prepare a report.” She also emphasized how the resolution would bolster the momentum of human rights groups’ international advocacy efforts.

Why Iceland took on the Philippine human rights cause

Iceland was elected as a member of the HRC last year, taking the slot of the United States, which had withdrawn its membership. The country will serve as a member until the end of this year.  The Philippines, meanwhile, was reelected for a second term in the Council last year, despite opposition from local and international rights groups.

Questions arose about Iceland’s commitment to the Philippines’ human rights cause. Pres. Duterte, with his trademark non-wit, chided the small European country: “You can understand no crime, there is no policeman either and they just go about eating ice.” Calling them fools, he insisted that Iceland does not understand the “social, economic, political problems of the Philippines”

To that, Carlos pointed out that Iceland has long spoken against human rights abuses and violations in other countries, even before its membership with the HRC. “What is clear to us and to our partners is that Iceland is a small country that has a strong sense of justice—rights-based justice. They have always stood up and spoke against a lot of bad situations, even outside the UN.”

Trajano also said that Iceland’s view of the Philippine situation is a result of the application of the UNHRC’s Ireland Principles, an objective criteria and basis of evaluation for countries with reported human rights violations. “Iceland did not just come up with this resolution out of the blue,” she said.

Carlos explained that the Ireland Principles, introduced in June 2016, are intended to guide “how the Human Rights Council members should actually treat situations that require their attention.”

Carlos and Trajano also explained that Iceland faced an uphill battle in pushing for the resolution, given that no other countries were willing to join a core group to muster the votes needed. “They were hoping to have a core group of States with cross-regional representation. But no one wanted to join, even the most sympathetic ones,” said Carlos.

Iceland’s win is China’s defeat

Eighteen countries voted in favor of adopting the resolution, while 14 opposed and 15 abstained. Foreign Affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. called the adoption’s validity as “highly questionable” given the narrow win.

Asked to explain the voting, Carlos and Trajano alluded to each member country’s own weighing of their interests vis-à-vis their diplomatic relations with the Philippines, noting that votes like these tend to be tactical in nature and a result of vigorous campaigning from yes and no camps.

The New York Times, in its reporting of the resolution, described the Philippine government’s own efforts: “They fired off memorandums to diplomatic missions in Geneva challenging the initiative as an abuse of Human Rights Council procedures and a bad use of resources.” The paper also quotes Laila Matar, deputy director in Geneva of Human Rights Watch, as saying that she has “never seen a countercampaign of the level of this one by the Philippines.”

But on the eve of voting day, the Philippine solidarity group was confident that it had the numbers. The past few days were a flurry of phone calls to and meetings with diplomats. “We focused on the big players by saying that if they change their decision, it will drastically change the whole landscape. Other countries might have cold feet,” Carlos said.

Trajano, for her part, pointed out China’s hand in securing no votes for the Philippines. She said that despite China’s “sophistication and care” in its diplomatic maneuvering, the rising superpower still failed to deliver enough no votes for the Philippines.

“If you pay attention to the voting breakdown, it’s clear which countries owe a lot of debt to China,” said Trajano. A third of Cameroon’s national debt, for example, is owed to China.  Angola, meanwhile, is Africa’s most indebted country to China, at an estimated US$ 23 billion. Both countries voted against the resolution’s adoption.

Trajano also echoed Walden Bello’s view that the vote was also the “first great test of Duterte’s diplomatic investment in China,” a test which China evidently failed.

Indeed, Bello said that China could have exerted enough pressure on four of its closest allies who are members of the HRC to vote no, which would be enough to swing the vote towards Manila-Beijing’s favor. But Brazil, Pakistan, the Congo, and South Africa all chose to abstain, which Bello believes could mean that these countries did not want to be on official record as tolerating widespread extrajudicial executions, that such a move was “simply a bridge too far…one that not even pressure from a close ally like China could convince them to cross.”

What will the report look like?

The comprehensive written report will be presented by UN human rights chief—and former Chile president—Michelle Bachelet on the Human Rights Council’s 44th Session on June 2020.

According to Carlos, Bachelet’s report will draw from a multitude of sources. “They would definitely get a report from the Philippine government.” Whether that would mean that the Philippine government will finally allow country visits from UN investigators is still unclear. Human rights groups are also expected to share information. The next few months will clarify exactly what mechanisms will be activated for gathering data from these sources.

What is definite, though, is that human rights groups are invested in supporting the preparation of the report. For Carlos, this is an issue of credibility. “We have to ensure that the full report be more credible than ours.” This speaks to the usual assertion of the Philippine government that reports from human rights groups are politicized and are attempts at disinformation. For a definitive and comprehensive account of the Philippines human rights situation to come from the head of the human rights body of the United Nations will go a long way in disproving these claims.

Trajano hopes that the report will shed light on the worsening situation of human rights defenders, as well as increasing numbers of enforced disappearances, adding: “There should also be a strong emphasis on freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, evidencing the shrinking civic spaces here in the Philippines.”

Carlos also sees the report as an opportunity to expose the reality that the so-called “war on drugs” is “essentially a tool to advance and consolidate totalitarian rule,” much like the government’s crackdown on critics and the continued imposition of Martial Law in Mindanao.

The report will also include recommendations. One outcome is that the report might lead to consequences for the Philippines in terms of trade sanctions by rich countries acting independently from the UN, although Trajano and Carlos lament that the situation should not have to reach that point.

Looking ahead, both advocates believe that the release of the report next year will, at the very least, establish that human rights groups’ claims are credible and that the Philippine government’s actions demand more international scrutiny.

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