By Edz de la Cruz
At least six countries have said the Philippines has not done enough to address extrajudicial killings in the recently concluded Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country’s human rights record before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC logo on the left) in Geneva, Switzerland.
Countries like Spain, United Kingdom, France, and Japan joined calls to end extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. The United States and the Netherlands meanwhile challenged Manila to address impunity in the country, citing its dismal track record of prosecuting cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, including those committed by the military.
Such claims, however, were dismissed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who said that “(t)here is no culture of impunity in the Philippines.”
De Lima headed the country’s official delegation to the UPR last May 29, when the Philippines took center stage once again at the UN Geneva Headquarters to report on its human-rights record before a UPR panel composed of UNHRC member states. This is the second UPR report for the Philippines.
In its report, the government cited several inroads in improving the country’s human rights situation since its first UPR in 2008 — most notably through the laws and policies it has adopted that aim to promote and protect human rights.
But UPR delegates from civil society slammed the government’s report for being “selective.” They said report deliberately left out glaring issues such as the “almost-nil conviction rate” for perpetrators of rights abuses. For these groups, the country’s human-rights policies remain merely symbolic due to poor or non-implementation. This is even as a number of much-needed human-rights policies remain conspicuously absent, they said.
The UPR is a process that involves a review by the 47-member UNHCR– sitting as review panel — of the human rights records of all 192 UN member states with respect to their performance of human-rights obligations set out in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, other human-rights instruments to which the state is party, and international humanitarian law.
Established on March 15, 2006 by the UN General Assembly, the review process is conducted once every four years by the UPR Working Group composed of all the UNHRC’s members. The UPR panel reviews the records of the entire UN membership over the course of four years – also called one UPR cycle – tackling 48 countries per year. The first UPR cycle was conducted from 2008-2011.
The review is based not only on the national reports submitted by the governments in question, but also takes into consideration information submitted by independent human-rights experts and groups, human-rights treaty bodies, other UN entities and other stakeholders, including nongovernmental organizations and national human-rights institutions.
After the review, an “outcome report,” which includes the discussions, questions, comments, and recommendations during the process, is submitted to the UPR Working Group for adoption.
While the government being reviewed can either accept or reject the recommendations, both accepted and refused recommendations are included in the report, which will ultimately be submitted for adoption by the Human Rights Council in plenary session. Such accepted recommendations will become the standard by which the states’ performance will be measured in subsequent review cycles.
The way lawyer Jessica Gambol-Shuck of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Legislative Division sees it though, the recommendations arising from the UPR serve merely as a “reminder” for governments. In other words, Gambol-Schuck said, the UPR does not compel strict observance among governments.
In its official report to the UPR, the government highlighted its Philippine Human Rights Plan 2012-2017, which, it said, aims “to set the track for mainstreaming human rights in government and society and to cover the government’s commitments under the international human rights treaties.”
Click here to read the Philippine government report.
The government also enumerated several recently passed laws that aim to promote and protect human rights. These include the Anti-Pornography Act of 2009, Anti-Photo and Video Voyeurism Act of 2010, Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act, Amended Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipino Act, Philippine Act on Crimes against International Humanitarian Law, Legitimization of Children Born to Underage Parents, and Anti-Torture Act, among others.
The government likewise prided itself on the so-called “National Monitoring System for the prevention of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance, and torture,” a system that, the government says, helps it in its ongoing effort to review cases of alleged human-rights violations, particularly those that deal with extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, and whose primary suspects are members of the security sector. (The military is part of the monitoring system).
Despite the Philippines’ glowing report to the UPR, some members of the UPR panel remain unconvinced. Of the 67 nations that participated in reviewing the Philippines’ human-rights record, at least six expressed grave concern on the continuing human rights abuses in the country and the prevailing culture of impunity.
Delegates from France, for instance, said they were “alarmed by extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances and continuing violations against journalists and human rights defenders.”
The United States, while expressing support to the Aquino administration’s efforts to pursue justice for human rights victims, expressed concern on how “access to justice has remained unattainable for the victims, and their families, of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances committed by members of security forces.”
In a statement, the United States noted how “institutional barriers to fighting impunity and corruption” will “prevent the Philippines from attaining its full potential as a just, fair, and rights-respecting society.”
The Netherlands for its part asked the Philippines how it could “concretely, expediently, and effectively address” the “unrelenting impunity” even though as of the time of the UPR, “there have been only seven successfully prosecuted cases from hundreds of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances since 2001.”
Canada, together with Spain, called for the dismantling of all paramilitary groups and militias, noting that despite training on human rights for security forces, violations remained “serious and all too widespread.”
Sweden also took exception to the country’s “history of documented deficiencies in the prosecution of unlawful killings of journalists” despite the fact that “freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Philippine Constitution.”
Not all questions submitted by other countries, however, dealt on extrajudicial killings and the culture of impunity. Several countries also questioned the government’s failure to legislate or implement fully certain measures that are key to the promotion of women and children’s rights, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. These include the continuing absence of a reproductive health law and divorce law, as well as the lack of concrete steps to implement fully the Juvenile Justice Act, address illegal recruitment and internal human trafficking, and the sexual exploitation of children, among others.
Interestingly, the UPR report submitted by the country’s own Commission on Human Rights (CHR) seemed to echo the questions put forward by the international community.
The CHR report, which summarizes the reports submitted by 42 stakeholders, most of them human rights NGOs, detailed the government’s dismal performance in several aspects of human rights – from civil and political rights, to women and children’s rights.
Click here to read the CHR report.
For instance, the CHR report noted how the government failed to protect and promote the rights of women and children with the continued absence of a reproductive health law and a divorce law. It also noted the increase in violence against women, including rape, and the overlooked need to revise the Anti-Child Abuse Act of 1992 that is supposed to ensure the protection of victims from prosecution.
The CHR report also observed the lack of a focal point in government for coordinating a strategy to reduce and eliminate extrajudicial killings and torture. It likewise refuted the government’s avowed strong stand against private armies, saying that the human-rights violations committed by such armed groups and private armies had in fact, increased.
Right outside the UN headquarters in Geneva where the Philippine delegation was presenting its UPR report, a number of human rights NGOs held a protest rally, tagging the report as being “selective.” At the home front a protest rally was simultaneously held in Plaza Miranda to dispute the country’s claims in its report to the UPR.
The Geneva protesters said the government purposely highlighted certain achievements — such as the recent impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona — to divert attention away from the country’s dismal compliance to international human rights standards.
The report, said National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) Secretary General Edre Olalia, “tends to highlight lesser achievements by gloating over showcase steps it has belatedly done while conveniently drowning the more essential issues such as the almost nil conviction rate of perpetrators of rights abuses, the failure of the Aquino government to press charges and arrest suspects and the continuing effects of the government’s insurgency program on the people.”
Among such alleged “perpetrators,” perhaps the most notorious is retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, who remains at large despite a warrant of arrest. This fact was not mentioned at all in the country’s report to the UPR, said Cristina Palabay, spokesperson of the rights group Karapatan. She added, “(There) is much gloating on the enactment of a few local legislation and ratifications of some international instruments.”
At Plaza Miranda, Karapatan Deputy Secretary General Roneo ‘Jigs’ Clamor said that the human-rights violations reported in the country’s first review in 2008 continue to this day. In the last two years under the Aquino administration alone, Karapatan recorded three cases of extrajudicial killings every month on average, or one killing every 10 days.
Clamor also slammed the Aquino administration’s counter-insurgency program Oplan Bayanihan, which, he said, perpetuates abuses of citizens by members of the military.
NUPL and Karapatan are among the 19 member organizations of the Philippine UPR Watch, a delegation of human rights defenders and advocates that engages in the UPR process.
The UPR Watch’s observations were shared by New York-based group Human Rights Watch, which called on the Aquino administration to implement “concrete measures,” rather than giving “more promises.” According to the group, Aquino “has not lived up to his promises to bring those responsible for serious abuses to justice,” since taking office two years ago.
Despite the concerns raised in relation to its report, the government opted to focus on the positive remarks that it received during the review.
In a statement, de Lima expressed her appreciation to other UN member states for recognizing the significant decrease in reported incidents of extrajudicial killings.
According to de Lima, such “positive development” is a reflection that “the government, under the leadership of President Aquino, utterly condemns such crimes” and that “there is no culture of impunity in the Philippines.”
All cases are “fastidiously investigated and filed, ” she said. De Lima also made an assurance that the Aquino government will be “relentless” in pursuing the perpetrators of human rights abuses and “bring them to justice.”
The review generated 88 recommendations from the various participating states that addressed four major issues and questions raised by the review panel to the Philippine government: steps to prohibit and address acts of extrajudicial killings and bring those responsible to justice; the existence of paramilitary forces and steps to address alleged human rights violations committed by them; measures to address cases of human trafficking and sexual exploitation; and efforts to advance the rights of domestic workers and migrants.
Of the 88 recommendations though, the Philippine government accepted only 53. These include: recognizing victims of trafficking, often young people, and providing them with protection and assistance; explicitly prohibiting all corporal punishment when raising children, at home, at school, institutions, the penal system and in all other areas; promoting measures to disarm and dismantle private armed groups; and impeding the utilization of child soldiers.
The justice secretary did say that said the government will “seriously study” the remaining 35 recommendations. She also announced the government’s plan to create a ‘UPR Monitoring Group,’ in cooperation with CHR and civil society organizations, to track progress in implementing those recommendations that the country did accept. These will be discussed further and considered for adoption when the UNHRC holds its 21st session this September.