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Critics Wonder If a New $10 Million UN-Philippines Human-Rights Project Will Work

Protests against extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances in the Philippines, 2017, Manila. The UN human-rights office has documented that thousands of Filipinos have been killed in the government’s war on illegal drugs, but UN investigators could not enter the country to fully research the problem. Instead, the Human Rights Council, of which the Philippines is a member, approved a UN program to improve human-rights accountability in the country. Critics have their doubts as to its usefulness. PHOTO BY JUDGE FLORO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

As the International Criminal Court begins an investigation into the thousands of extrajudicial killings committed by the Philippine government during its antidrug campaign, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is partnering with the country on a three-year program to hold the government accountable for its behavior. On Oct. 7, Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, provided an update on the program, which began in July.

Critics of the new initiative worry that it will enable the Philippine government to appear conciliatory but fail to produce tangible change.

Bachelet’s presentation came exactly one year after the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council announced that it would provide technical assistance and capacity-building support to the Philippine government to improve accountability of its security forces, who are accused of human-rights violations. The program involves the UN country team in the Philippines, the independent national Commission on Human Rights and “a wide range of civil society actors” aiming to improve police professionalism, government engagement with civil society and legal, human rights-based approaches to counterterrorism and drug regulation.

Signe Poulsen, the UN’s senior human-rights adviser in the Philippines, told PassBlue in an interview that the program’s budget is $10 million over three years.

The Council’s decision to work with the Philippine government on the program has been contentious from the start. In mid-2020, Bachelet called for an independent investigation into human rights and police accountability in the Philippines after her office conducted an in-depth report. But her office did not receive permission to enter the country to do its work, and the 47-member Council dismissed Bachelet’s recommendation and instead passed a resolution to implement this program. The Council’s members currently include such flagrant violators of human rights as China, Venezuela and Russia. (The United States, which withdrew from the Council in 2018, under the Trump administration, has won a seat to return to as of Jan. 1, 2022.)

Bachelet’s report found that at least 8,600 people have been killed in the government’s anti-illegal drugs campaign — some estimates triple that number. Of those, 73 were children, the youngest just five years old. “Obstacles to accessing justice within the country are almost unsurmountable,” the report states.

InvestigatePH, an international advocacy group based in the Philippines, independently probed human-rights abuses after the Council decided not to launch its own investigation. The organization produced three reports. Peter Murphy, the coordinator of InvestigatePH, said that though he remained optimistic about the UN-Philippines program and sees potential for change with the presidential election planned for May 2022, he said in an email to PassBlue that he feared the program may be “a way to manage UN criticism.”

Women and queer people have paid a disproportionate price under President Rodrigo Duterte’s rule, one of the InvestigatePH reports said. “No other Filipino leader has been as brutal as President Rodrigo Duterte towards women campaigners for human rights, peace and development,” it said. The widespread practice of “red-tagging” — the political persecution of individuals who are deemed opponents to Duterte’s administration — often targets women, particularly Indigenous rights advocates, politicians and journalists. This includes Maria Ressa, a journalist with the investigative news outlet Rappler, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. The InvestigatePH report documented Duterte’s telling the military to “shoot women rebels in their vaginas,” in 2018, leading to “horrific” treatment of jailed women.

Despite the government’s own steps to address monitoring and police violations in the Philippines since 2012, “we have seen an increase of complaints of violation of workers’ basic civil liberties, creating a climate in which trade union rights are seriously hindered,” said Karen Curtis, a spokesperson for the International Labor Organization, of which the country has been a member since 1948.

“There has been little accountability in the government’s militarizing and addressing issues that they would really like to go away,” the Rev. Dr. Susan Henry Crowe, the general secretary of the United Methodist Church and a commissioner of InvestigatePH, said in an interview.

Duterte, who began the war on drugs as the mayor of Davao City in 2011, is barred from running for re-election for the presidency because he is limited to one term under the country’s constitution. His daughter, the current mayor of Davao City, has announced she will run for president.

The International Criminal Court said this month that it would open an investigation into crimes committed under Duterte’s war on drugs. Just a month after then-prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced her intention to examine humanitarian issues in the Philippines, in February 2018, Duterte withdrew the country as a member from the court, casting serious doubt on its ability to hold the government accountable. On Oct. 7, 2021, however, the new prosecutor, Karim Khan, confirmed that the court would investigate and seek accountability for crimes committed in the Philippines since the beginning of the antidrug campaign in 2011, until Duterte’s withdrawal from the court became effective in 2019.

The Human Rights Council’s resolution to provide technical assistance and capacity-building support to the Philippines was presented jointly by the country with Iceland, and it passed without a vote. (The Philippines’ term on the Council ends this year.) During the same Council session, the Philippines abstained from voting on a separate resolution strengthening accountability for all UN technical assistance and capacity-building programs worldwide.

The joint program has not begun implementation. There have been some “initial developments” in trying to hold the government accountable, Bachelet said in the Oct. 7 update, but she remained “disturbed” by reports of “continuing and severe” human-rights violations in the country.

The program has six areas of focus, according to Poulsen, including working with the Filipino Department of Justice to “help fast-track” investigations into human-rights abuses that are often stalled or stopped.

“We work with the police to improve their own reporting and addressing of human rights,” she said.

The program also aims to enhance the Philippine government’s engagement with international human-rights mechanisms and civil society organizations to create a “human-rights based” approach to drug legislation and to improve counterterrorism legislation.

The program also plans to work with the police to improve data gathering on human-rights violations. This includes an assessment on current efforts by the police, including its Human Rights Recording, Analysis, Information System and Enforcement database launched last year.

Murphy of InvestigatePH stressed that he was optimistic about the program, particularly its potential under a new Filipino president. Still, he remained critical during a roundtable organized by the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines on Oct. 8. “It could well be that in three years’ time, when this program is completed, not much will have changed.”

Responding to criticisms by civil society and others surrounding the usefulness of the joint program, Poulsen told PassBlue: “We share their concern that we need this program to show some real and very concrete changes on the ground. . . . By all means, keep monitoring us.”

Anna Bianca Roach is a Simon and June Li Center for Global Journalism Fellow who focuses on climate reporting. She has worked in Canada, Armenia and the United States and is a native speaker of English, French and Italian. She has an M.S. in investigating reporting from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in conflict studies from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She has written for OpenDemocracy, The Washington Post and Deutsche Welle.

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