BANGKOK/GENEVA (4 June 2020) – A heavy-handed focus on countering national security threats and illegal drugs has resulted in serious human rights violations in the Philippines, including killings and arbitrary detentions, as well as the vilification of dissent, a new report by the UN Human Rights Office said Thursday. Persistent impunity and formidable barriers to accessing justice need to be urgently addressed, the report said.
The report, which was mandated by a UN Human Rights Council resolution, noted that many of the human rights concerns it has documented are long-standing, but have become more acute in recent years. This has been manifested particularly starkly in the widespread and systematic killing of thousands of alleged drug suspects. Numerous human rights defenders have also been killed over the past five years.
“While there have been important human rights gains in recent years, particularly in economic and social rights, the underpinning focus on national security threats – real and inflated – has led to serious human rights violations, reinforced by harmful rhetoric from high-level officials,” the report stated. “This focus has permeated the implementation of existing laws and policies and the adoption of new measures – often at the expense of human rights, due process rights, the rule of law, and accountability.”
Since the Government launched its campaign against illegal drugs in 2016, official figures indicate that at least 8,663 people have been killed, with some estimates putting the real toll at more than triple that number. The UN Human Rights Office has also documented that, between 2015 and 2019, at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists and trade unionists have been killed in relation to their work.
There has been near impunity for these killings, with only one conviction for the killing of a drug suspect in a police operation since mid-2016, the report stated. Witnesses, family members, journalists and lawyers interviewed by the UN Human Rights Office expressed fears over their safety and a sense of powerlessness in the search for justice, resulting in a situation where “the practical obstacles to accessing justice within the country are almost insurmountable.”
Given the failure of domestic mechanisms to ensure accountability thus far, the report stressed the need for independent, impartial, credible investigations into all allegations of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The High Commissioner stands ready to assist credible efforts towards accountability at the national and international level.
The UN Human Rights Office examined the key policy documents relating to the campaign against illegal drugs and found a troubling lack of due process protections, and the use of language calling for “negation” and “neutralization” of drug suspects.
“Such ill-defined and ominous language, coupled with repeated verbal encouragement by the highest level of State officials to use lethal force, may have emboldened police to treat the circular as permission to kill,” the report stated.
Police raids on private households were routinely carried out without warrants, and post-operational spot reports examined by the Office indicated that evidence may have been falsified. An examination of 25 operations in which 45 people were killed in Metro Manila between August 2016 and June 2017 found that “police repeatedly recovered guns bearing the same serial numbers from different victims in different locations,” suggesting some victims were unarmed at the time of their killing. Arrests of suspected drug offenders have also contributed to a 534 per cent prison congestion rate – among the highest in the world.
While the Philippines has a long-standing and robust tradition of human rights advocacy and activism, with more than 60,000 registered NGOs, human rights defenders have been subject to verbal and physical attacks, threats and legal harassment for nearly 20 years, the report states. The vilification of dissent and attacks against perceived critics, the report said, are being “increasingly institutionalized and normalized in ways that will be very difficult to reverse.”
The phenomenon of “red-tagging” – labelling individuals or groups (including human rights defenders and NGOs) as communists or terrorists – has posed a serious threat to civil society and freedom of expression. The report notes how in some cases those who have been red-tagged were subsequently killed. Others told the UN Human Rights Office they had received death threats or sexually-charged comments in private messages or on social media.
“Human rights advocacy is routinely equated with insurgency and the focus diverted to discrediting the messengers rather than examining the substance of the message,” the report said. “This has muddied the space for debate, disagreement and for challenging State institutions and policies.”
Human rights violations documented in the Philippines have been exacerbated by harmful rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of the Government, which the report described as “pervasive and deeply damaging.” That rhetoric has ranged from degrading comments against women human rights defenders to incitement to extreme violence against civil society actors, journalists, people who use and sell drugs, and indigenous peoples. The use of some of this “incendiary” language “could amount to a violation of the prohibition against arbitrary deprivation of life in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the report said.
In the report, the UN Human Rights Office also detailed ongoing threats to freedom of expression, with legal charges and prosecutions being brought against journalists and senior politicians critical of the Government, as well as actions to shut down media outlets.
The report also examined key national security laws and policies and their impact on human rights, particularly in the southern island of Mindanao, as well as Negros Island, which have seen increased militarization through the imposition of emergency measures. The effect of this militarization – coupled with the long-standing presence of armed groups and the pressure by powerful landed elites and large business projects – is particularly dire on already embattled indigenous and farming communities.
There are concerns that counter-insurgency policies have given rise to patterns resembling “those that characterize the anti-illegal drugs campaign, notably a presumption of guilt and lack of due process or effective oversight – this time against those suspected of supporting the [Communist Party of the Philippines and its New People’s Army],” the report stated.
The report also documents reports of human rights abuses by non-State actors, including killings, abductions, recruitment of children and extortion by the New People’s Army (NPA). The United Nations lists the NPA among parties that commit grave violations affecting children in situations of armed conflict.
The High Commissioner welcomed the substantive engagement between the UN Human Rights Office and the Government of the Philippines in the preparation of the report.
“The Philippines faces major challenges – structural poverty, inequality, armed conflict, frequent natural disasters, and now the COVID-19 crisis,” Bachelet said. “It is vital the Government’s responses be grounded in human-rights approaches and guided by meaningful dialogue. Accountability and full transparency for alleged violations are essential for building public trust. Unfortunately, the report has documented deep-seated impunity for serious human rights violations, and victims have been deprived of justice for the killings of their loved ones. Their testimonies are heartbreaking.”
“People who use or sell drugs do not lose their human rights,” the High Commissioner said. “People who disagree with Government policies and criticize them, including in international fora, should not be vilified as terrorist sympathizers. Indigenous peoples should not be victims of a tug-of-war between the State, non-State armed groups and business interests.”
She said the UN Human Rights Office was ready to support the Philippines – constructively and concretely – in implementing the report’s recommendations, in an effort to halt the many long-standing, widespread human rights violations in the country, and to prevent their recurrence.
The report is based on 893 written submissions, substantial input from the Government of the Philippines, analysis of legislation, police reports, court documents, videos, photos and other open source material, as well as interviews with victims and witnesses. It is due to be discussed at the next UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva.