Thursday, 24 September 2020
More than seventy civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and grassroots groups led by the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) and the In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND) are alarmed at the renewed perpetration of extrajudicial killings in the country, even as the Philippine government claimed that investigations are happening. Our monitoring and documentation work in the affected communities revealed that amidst a public health crisis brought on by the pandemic, killings in relation to the war on illegal drugs, as well as killings in relation to the COVID-19 quarantine regulations, has persisted with gross impunity.
Despite calls for the Philippines to cooperate with international bodies to investigate and provide remedies to more than 30,000 cases of extrajudicial killings, the government insisted on disseminating false and misleading information, as well as vilifying human rights advocates and their supporters.
During the interactive dialogue at the 44th session, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra announced the creation of an inter-agency panel that would investigate and review the cases of over 5000 anti-illegal drug police operations where deaths have been recorded. However, the panel failed to meet international standards of independence and impartiality due to its member agencies’ main role in the implementation of the illegal drugs campaign. There has been no significant engagement with civil society and despite the signing of a memorandum with the Commission on Human Rights, no further movement has been observed from this panel. Thus, we find that this initiative of the Justice Department can only provide a smokescreen to the continuing bloody campaign.
During the lockdown, a spate of killings happened in Barangay Pinyahan, Quezon City where ten people have been killed between May to September 2020. In a dialogue at the city mayor’s office, the police chief admitted that the killings are not only happening in one barangay but in several other barangays and many cases remained unreported. The Human Rights Watch has found that killings in the Philippines rise to 50% during the pandemic with 155 deaths recorded between May to August 2020. Before the COVID-19 crisis, 103 persons were killed by the police from December 2019 to March 2020.
Human rights defenders and journalists who continue to raise issues on human rights are relentlessly targeted for reprisals and intimidation.
On April 30, the 303rd Infantry Brigade of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, based in Negros province, posted on their Facebook page, accusations against several civil society organizations (CSOs) including human rights groups PAHRA and the Medical Action Group, a PAHRA member organization composed of doctors and health rights defenders. The poster accused PAHRA and other human rights groups as either being members of, or linked to the Communist Party of the Philippines – New Peoples’ Army - National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF), and likened them to “terrorist viruses” that should be avoided. In June 2020, Amnesty International Board member and Executive Director of BALAOD Mindanao (a legal assistance and advocacy group) Atty. Ritz Lee Santos III, posted a publicity material disseminated online accusing him of being a member of a local communist group because he organized a rally that protested the newly enacted Anti-Terrorism Law.
We note with serious concern that the recommendations of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have been largely ignored by Philippine officials most notably by President Duterte, who has pledged in his fifth State of the Nation Address this year, to pursue the violent anti-drug war until the end of his term.
Since the issuance of the report of the High Commissioner in June, the government has renewed efforts to revive capital punishment; Congress has slashed the budget of the National Human Rights Institution by half a million; it has also shut down a national media network which has provided important information on the pandemic, the summary killings, and the harsh lockdowns; finally, President Duterte enacted a law that purports to prevent terrorism. However, many believe that the real targets are the critical voices. The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 faces more than 30 petitions for nullification before the Supreme Court, from a broad cross-section of the Philippine population.
Adopting the drug war’s blueprint, the government’s implementation of a militarist response to an unprecedented public health crisis has exacerbated the people’s deprived living conditions. Communities that were traumatized by the summary killings have been re-traumatized by the erection of checkpoints manned by soldiers and police, as well as severe punishments for lockdown violators. The national police reported 76,000 arrests for quarantine violations between March 17 and July 25, and the Commission on Human Rights is investigating more than 900 cases including allegations of torture and inhumane treatment. This response framework posed further threat to basic rights and fundamental freedoms of the people and added a new dimension to the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in the Philippines since 2016.
Without a strong resolution on the Philippines, the Council risks the intensification of human rights violations in the country. The impact of the current pandemic on the health and livelihoods of the people, especially the most marginalized, makes for more desperate attempts to gain assistance and support from the government. Diminished democratic spaces in the country may result in an escalation of conflict with authorities who wield authoritarian policies over urgent social, economic, and health needs.
Impunity for gross human rights violations has long eroded people’s trust in the justice system. This is the reason a vast majority of the families of the victims of extrajudicial killings and victims of human rights violations refuse to pursue legal action against known perpetrators. Impunity also results in continued stigmatization of the victims’ families including their children who often had to stop school to avoid bullying and discrimination.
A strong resolution on the Philippines expresses the international community’s commitment to end impunity and to exact accountability against the perpetrators. A strong resolution serves to bring justice more closely to those who have been victims of grave human rights violations; a strong resolution will provide crucial impetus to ending the attacks against human rights defenders.
We urge the members of the Human Rights Council to intensify its engagement with the government of the Philippines towards more concrete measures to address widespread impunity in the country, and to support the implementation of the recommendations of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, particularly:
Pursue an independent and transparent mission to the Philippines to examine the extrajudicial killings in the War on Drugs, and attacks against Human Rights Defenders;
Encourage the Philippines, as member of the Human Rights Council, to fully cooperate with the OHCHR and mechanisms of Human Rights Council by facilitating country visits and refrain from all acts of intimidation and reprisal;
Provide reparation and psycho-social intervention for victims of human rights violations;
Encourage the Philippines to enact the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill filed in Congress;
Encourage and support technical cooperation between the Government and OHCHR to implement the recommendations of this report, with the participation of the Commission on Human Rights and civil society;
Mandate OHCHR to continue monitoring and documenting the situation of human rights in the Philippines, and to regularly report to the Human Rights Council, including on progress in technical cooperation; and
In the absence of clear and measurable outcomes from domestic mechanisms, consider options for international accountability measures.
 See A/HRC/44/22 Advance Unedited Version 4 June 2020: Annex II, Image 3, pg. 24
 See PAHRA and iDEFEND Briefing paper on widespread impunity and contempt for accountability worsen government response to the pandemic