Philippines: UN resolution a missed chance for justice but scrutiny continues

The resolution on the Philippines adopted by the UN Human Rights Council today is a missed opportunity to seek justice for thousands of unlawful killings, said Amnesty International.   

Rather than launching the much-needed comprehensive investigation into the human rights situation in the Philippines, the UN resolution – led jointly by Iceland and the Philippines – requests the UN Human Rights Office to support the Philippines through ‘technical assistance’. This assistance will be focused on areas including accountability; data gathering of violations by the police; civic space; counter-terrorism legislation, and a rights-based approach to drug control.  

“The human rights situation in the Philippines warrants more than just ‘technical assistance’ from the UN. A full international investigation to effectively address the pervasive impunity in the country is urgently needed,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Philippines Researcher at Amnesty International.   

The resolution falls far short of repeated calls by civil society and UN experts for an independent, international investigation into the serious ongoing human rights violations in the country, including the thousands of extrajudicial executions perpetrated by police and vigilantes linked to them in the context of the so-called “war on drugs”.    

“The Human Rights Council failed to advance justice for bereaved families across the Philippines who had placed their hopes in the international community,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard.  

“This weak resolution also lets down the brave human rights defenders, journalists and others who have engaged with the UN in good faith and pursue their work at huge personal risk.” 

Amnesty International has seen a continued deterioration of the human rights situation in the Philippines over the last few months. Major warning signs include ongoing incitement to kill by President Duterte, the promotion to national police chief of Lt Gen Camilo Cascolan, an alleged architect of the deadly anti-drug campaign, and the adoption of a dangerous anti-terror law. In June 2020, well-known journalist Maria Ressa was convicted for ‘cyber libel’, and a month after, major media network ABS-CBN was shut down. There is also a new spike in police killings, and there have been brutal murders of human rights and political activists and of a journalist in recent months.  

This critical state of affairs was detailed by Amnesty International in a briefing published last week, “My Job is to Kill”, named after a speech by President Duterte in March 2020.  

“The states that negotiated with the Philippines to agree to this resolution have a responsibility to launch a full international investigation if there is no radical improvement in the human rights situation in the country. These states face a credibility test: how will they respond if the bloody wave of killings continue, and the brutal crackdown on civil society and the media rages on? 

Despite its major shortcomings, the resolution includes measures that task the UN Human Rights Office to continue to provide updates to the Council over the next two years.  

The decision to keep the Philippines on the Council’s agenda sends a clear message to the Duterte administration that the international community is still watching,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard.

“The months to come must see an immediate end to the wave of drug-related killings, the cessation of violent attacks against critics of the government, as well as a halt to the crackdown on press freedom in the Philippines.  

While the government’s tactics to delay an international investigation may have worked this time, the moment will come when justice will be done.” 

Background  

The resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on 7 October was presented by the Philippines together with Iceland. 

It follows an initial landmark resolution in 2019, led by Iceland, which requested the UN Human Rights Office to prepare a report on the human rights situation in the country and present it to the Council. That report, published in June 2020, expounded on how years of the lack of accountability for human rights violations has created a culture of impunity in the country. The report also described the “systematic and widespread killing of thousands of alleged drug suspects” amid murderous incitement occurring “at the highest levels of government”.  

In light of the report’s findings and recommendations, a group of 35 NGOs issued a call on the Human Rights Council to launch an independent, international investigation into the situation. That call remains unfulfilled.  

Following growing pressure on the Duterte administration at the Human Rights Council in recent sessions, the Philippine government announced in July 2020 the establishment of an inter-agency panel to “review” cases of killings during police anti-drug operations. The timing and circumstances of the inter-agency panel has been clearly designed to shield the government from scrutiny and includes the very agencies involved in the killings and other violations.  

Amnesty International does not consider this panel a credible effort to deliver justice, and is deeply concerned that it will further endanger the families of victims who engage with it. Amnesty International’s previous research has expressed concern at the Philippine National Police’s track record of harassing and intimidating those who bring complaints against them. Most police officers accused of being responsible of unlawful killings are still on active duty, often living amongst the community.