During the 44th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) in June 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet reported the widespread and systematic human rights violations in the Philippines. The High Commissioner found that domestic mechanisms have failed to ensure accountability, and that there is persistent impunity for human rights violations. She also cited that authorities’ harmful rhetoric inciting hatred and violence against women, human rights defenders, political opposition, civil society, indigenous peoples, drug users and peddlers, and relief workers, which continued during the COVID-19 period, could amount to a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Weeks after the release of Bachelet’s comprehensive report, the human rights situation in the Philippines took a turn for the worse. In the first week of July, the President signed the Anti-Terror Act that is seen as a measure that will aggravate the attacks and vilification of human rights defenders and civil society. The exercise of fundamental freedoms and rights has been compromised, with numerous challenges to press freedom and activists and protesters arrested and detained on flimsy charges. In August, only days apart, peasant leader Randall Echanis and health activist Zara Alvarez were summarily executed in separate incidents, following the killings of relief worker Jory Porquia, peasant leader Nora Apique and urban poor leader Carlito Badion during the COVID-19 lockdown. The lawyer and paralegal volunteer assisting the family of Echanis are now facing police complaints for allegedly obstructing its investigation. Threats of violence, including death threats, against activists and human rights defenders have continued unabated.
We must put a stop to these unrelenting attacks now. And this worsening situation would not end as long as those who perpetrate them run free and unscathed. These perpetrators must be brought to justice before any court, tribunal or body that will act independently, with impartiality, and effectively, having allegiance to human rights and justice instead of powers that be. We need true accountability and genuine transparency in the inquiry into these human rights violations, removing the possibility that investigations would only shield and even absolve the persons liable for the crimes.
We cannot rely on the promise of a government that has shown great disdain and disrespect of human rights to exact accountability and operate with transparency. This government has shown nothing but contempt for individuals and experts, including those in the UN and the International Criminal Court, who independently and impartially seek investigation into the relentless human rights violations in the Philippines.
The Philippine Justice Secretary, during the 44th UNHRC Session, denied the existence of impunity in the Philippines, promising the creation of an inter-agency panel to review the 5,655 killings during the police’s anti-illegal drug operations. He denied allegations of widespread and systematic killings as well as other human rights violations. He stressed that the Government has respected human rights and other fundamental freedoms, reiterating the existence of accountability measures, such as an inter-agency committee on extralegal killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and other grave violations of the right to life, liberty and security of persons.
We have witnessed a long history of domestic inter-agency task forces and fact-finding commissions promising to act without fear or favor. But we repeatedly have been frustrated and even enraged by the fruitlessness and ineffectiveness of these so-called domestic accountability measures. Rather than help, these government bodies have even contributed to the infrastructure of impunity and miscarriage of justice against the victims of human rights violations.
With the 45th session of the Human Rights Council beginning today, we call on the UN Human Rights Council to exercise its mandate and urgently create an independent and impartial investigative mechanism on the rampant extrajudicial killings and human rights violations in the Philippines. The Human Rights Council’s action may contribute significantly to deter further human rights violations in the Philippines. Likewise, we also support other initiatives in urging States all over the world to send the message that such level of impunity in the Philippines is unacceptable.
This must happen now before we lose another Zara Alvarez, another Randall Echanis, another Jory Porquia, another Kian delos Santos, and another Filipino to these cruel, widespread and systematic violations.
Karapatan Alliance Philippines
National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL)
Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment
Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines
Civicus World Alliance for Citizen Participation
International Movement for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net)
Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)
International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL)
Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD)
Asia Pacific Network of Environmental Defenders (APNED)
International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines
Nnimmo Bassey, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Nigeria
Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras de Derechos Humanos
Proyecto de Derechos Economicos, Sociales y Culturales (Pro-DESC), Mexico
Project South, US
Public Association Dignity, Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law