Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines

An interview with Philippines UPR Watch delegates Dr. Angie Gonzales (Coordinator of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines) and Ms. Sharon Cabusao (Gabriela) conducted by the Action Solidarite Tiers Monde – ASTM’s Julie Smit

Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

I understand that you recently took part in the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of the human rights situation in the Philippines in Geneva as members of the network Philippines UPR WATCH. Could you tell us a bit about the network?

The Philippine UPR Watch is a broad network of human rights and church-based groups as well as sectoral and grassroots people’s organizations that has been participating in the UN UPR process since the first cycle in 2008. We have been submitting alternative or shadow reports to the official government report. Our reports are based on the experiences of our member organizations and thus, we believe, more comprehensively and truthfully reflects ground realities of the human rights situation in our country.

Could you explain the various stages of the UPR process?

The UPR was established in 2006, under the auspices of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), to address gaps in the UN Human Rights infrastructure and to complement the work of both the UN Treaty Body and Special Procedures systems.

Through the UPR, each UN Member State had its human rights standards scrutinised through a peer-to-peer human rights monitoring mechanism. A cycle encompasses a total of about 5 years, thus, the Philippines underwent its first review in 2008, then in 2012 and the 3rd and latest one last May 8, 2017.

Each examination, conducted by the UPR Working Group, takes 3½ hours. The State under Review (SuR) is given a total of 70 minutes to address the Working Group. This time is usually used to make introductory remarks, summarise their National Report, and do its closing remarks. This is then followed by 140 minutes of Interactive Dialogue with the Working Group. States participating in the review, known as Recommending States (RS), have the opportunity to ask questions, note comments and, most importantly, make recommendations to the SuR. The SuR on the other hand may respond to the recommendations presented during this interactive dialogue.

Upon completion of the review, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), with the assistance of 3 UN member states referred to as the Troika, drafts the list of recommendations and releases it within 48 hours so that RS can verify whether their recommendations were properly recorded. The list is then presented to the Working Group a few days later and is adopted by the Working Group. After that point, the recommendations cannot be modified. The SuR can at this stage provide its position on the recommendations or opt to consider the recommendations over the following 3-4 months.

The SuR’s decision will be reflected in the draft of the report. The final report, including summaries of the SuR’s intervention and the interactive dialogue, is released one week after the end of the UPR Working Group session. Meanwhile, the SuR considers whether to “support” or “note” the recommendations. The SuR presents its response in an addendum which is officially adopted at the HRC, during a plenary session, 3–4 months after the review.

Was there a chance for civil society in the Philippines to be involved in the preparations of the UPR? Was there a consultation with civil society by the Government at any point in the lead up to the UPR?

Civil society organizations are crucial stakeholders in the UPR process.

In the run of the Preparations for the review, CSOs are encouraged to (1) participate in national consultations (if any), (2) submit their own UPR reports, (3) organise in-country pre-session fora, (4) conduct advocacy and raising awareness towards the public and the RS (lobbying); and (5) participate in UPR Info’s Pre-sessions Programme in Geneva.

During the actual Review and the HRC Adoption, CSOs may observe the proceedings and continue advocacy and awareness raising activities, for example holding side events to discuss and critique the report of the SuR and the various recommendations of its peers. They are not, however, allowed to take the floor during this meeting.

The HRC’s adoption of the UPR Working Group Report and Addendum is the final stage of the review process in Geneva, 3-4 months after. During the one hour session, (around 10) CSOs are allotted 20 minutes to orally intervene. This opportunity may be maximised to highlight most especially unaddressed but important issues affecting the SuR.

Close monitoring of implementation and conducting continuous advocacy activities are important opportunities for CSOs to take during the whole process. Mid-term reports are also encouraged by the OHCHR and the UNHRC.

Regarding consultations between the government of current President Duterte and CSOs back in the country: there was none for the third cycle. In fact, the Duterte administration had earlier requested for a postponement of the review. This was, however, not granted by the UN body responsible for the review. A copy of the official report was only made public only a day or so before the actual review.

How was the Government’s report received by the member states that participated in the UPR?

Many of the recommendations raised by the delegates of the member states were actually already raised in the previous UPRs, which is an indication of the continuing impunity with which human rights violations are happening in the country, from the previous to the current government. While some raised a few positive points, an overwhelming number expressed concern over a host of human rights issues, primarily a stop to extrajudicial killings in the context of its anti-drugs campaign and politically-motivated killings, protection for human rights defenders and journalists, women’s rights, the reimposition of the death penalty and children’s rights.

What were your reactions to the official report of the Government of the Philippines?

In the opening statement of the SuR’s report to the UPR Working Group, it affirmed its commitment to the “universality, indivisibility, interdependence, and interrelatedness of all human rights, respectful of our unique national and regional particularities borne by our diverse historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds”.

The report then further brags of an economic agenda that is supposed to address various socio-economic concerns, and listed several legislations and other administrative and executive issuances to address sectoral issues like contractualization, unemployment, socialized housing, etc. It also listed several actions supposedly designed to address the issues and concerns of the “vulnerable sectors” like women and children, including the issues of human trafficking.

In the submitted report and in the oral address delivered by Alan Peter Cayetano during the review itself, the Duterte Government denies the existence of any state policy that promotes, condones, sanctions or encourages extrajudicial killings (EJKs) of drug traffickers, criminals, or dissenters.

The reality on the ground, however, is not at all reflective of these pronouncements.

Since the first two cycles of the UPR in 2008 and 2012, extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearance and other human rights violations remain unabated. To this date, no perpetrator of extra-judicial killings committed under present and past administrations (including Pres. Arroyo and Aquino) has been held accountable. Instead, several military and police officials responsible for human rights violations were promoted to higher positions in the military and police and even increasingly appointed to civilian positions.

The report likewise misleads the general public and the international community that its development plans are “gender-sensitive”. Among some others, the report also misleads by stating that it has already released compensation for the initial 4,000 Martial law victims in March this year when in fact, it has yet to release the partial list of 311 claimants residing in Metro Manila whose applications were approved with finality only on May 8, the day of the review in the halls of the United Nations.

Now that the UPR has taken place, what will happen next?

The Duterte government should eventually submit an addendum to the official UPR draft report – indicate which recommendations it will “support” and which it will merely “note”. Supported recommendations should have been implemented by the time of the next cycle of the UPReview, while “noted” ones should be well on their way to being implemented. A State under Review, cannot reject any recommendation made during the review.

This final report will eventually be adopted by the UNHRC in its session sometime in September.

How is UPR WATCH planning to follow up on the UPR?

As active participants in the UPR process and even more so in the grassroots people’s movement in the Philippines, we remain committed to follow through our advocacy and awareness raising activities to improve the situation in the country.

Together with our allies in the international community, we will continue to engage the United Nations, Parliaments and governments, and other human rights and international institutions to train their eyes on the situation in the country. We will continue to enjoin them as well to support the efforts of the Filipino people to assert and ultimately claim our economic, social, cultural and political rights as a people.

The situation of human rights in the Philippines

The recent UPR has served to highlight the situation of human rights in your country. The main issue that people outside the Philippines hears about at the moment is that of the thousands of people killed in the context of the war on drugs since President Duterte came to power. How do you see this and how is it possible that Duterte still enjoys a high rate of popularity among a large section of the population?

President Duterte anchored his campaign on promises of change – weeding out corruption, forging an independent and progressive economy, peace, and bringing down criminality including a vow to wage a “war on drugs”. Winning the 2016 elections by a landslide is, thus, a clear repudiation of previous administrations, particularly of the Aquino government’s failure to bring about these highly desired changes for the largely impoverished people.

Criminality brought about by the illegal drug trade is really among the top concerns of many Filipinos but his “law and order” approach to solving the problem will eventually lead nowhere and has in fact spawned this issue of massive human rights violations against street-level drug users and traders. In our view, shared by many Filipinos, it is only by implementing socio-economic reforms to significantly reduce poverty, coupled with effective prosecution of big-time traders which will make a dent on this widespread social problem.

Could you also say something about the current climate in which human rights defenders in the Philippines are working?

This is the reality we have highlighted in our shadow report on the human rights situation in our country – that politically-motivated arrests and killings continue with impunity under the current government as they did under previous administrations. In fact, even the peace negotiations in the country between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), popularly supported by Filipinos, is being rocked by peace spoilers within the Duterte administration, with the state’s armed forces simply defying their Commander-in-Chief on issues such as the granting of general amnesty to political prisoners and continued military operations in the countrysides which has taken the lives of many peasant leaders and displaced thousands of indigenous peoples.

We have also heard that the Philippines is coming close to re-introducing the death penalty. What is your reaction to this and what implications do you think the re-introduction of the death penalty could have for the country and civil society in particular?

We also campaigned vigorously against the reimposition of the death penalty. It is a reneging on the part of the Duterte government on its obligations to honor its commitment to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international treaty that commits the country to the abolition of the death penalty. We firmly believe that it is also part of the attempts of undemocratic, self-serving forces among the ruling elite through their allies in Congress to impose politically repressive measures that will surely be eventually used against political dissent in the country.

Sharon, as you are working with the women’s organization Gabriela, perhaps you could say a few words about the particular issues affecting women in the Philippines?

While past and current Philippine governments have extolled their achievements at passing laws for women’s rights, it is difficult to say that these have benefitted the vast majority of Filipino women – peasants, workers, urban poor , indigenous women. Excruciating poverty is something that Filipino women share with their male counterparts, but it is also a double burden to them because of their traditional role in family survival, particularly in the rearing of children. The inaccessibility of social services and even basic utilities, make their tasks even harder. In the countrysides, land is a fundamental problem for many women. Massive displacement due to military operations and/or development aggression, environmental destruction and land grabbing are the realities that they confront. The passage of a law on reproductive health can be viewed as a positive step although that is also severely circumscribed by the severe lack of basic and maternal health care and services for women. Migration and trafficking are two other important issues affecting women as well.

Peace process

On his inauguration, President Duterte announced that he would make ending the armed conflict in the Philippines a top priority and negotiations started in August already. What is the current situation of the negotiations and what are the hopes of civil society?

There are four substantive agreements in the peace negotiations between the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP). Two of the most important are the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), already signed in 1998 and the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio Economic Reforms (CASER) currently on the table. The latter constitutes the “meat” of the peace negotiations as basic socio-economic problems in the country are believed to be at the root of the armed conflict in the first place.

At the core of CASER is the issue of landlessness – as a vast majority of Filipino peasants up to this day and age are still bound by feudal relations with owners of the land they till – it calls for genuine land reform and national industrialization that can extricate the economy from decades of foreign-oriented, elite-dominated development path.

A total of 4 rounds of formal talks have been held. And at this point, it is very encouraging to note that both parties have already recognized the problem of landlessness and rural poverty, and even agreed in principle to the free distribution of land to farmers and farm workers. The next round will be very soon held come May 27 to June 2, 2017.

Some member organizations of the Philippine UPR Watch, aside from engaging the UN UPR process, also participate in the ongoing peace process. In the Philippines and abroad, we are not only conducting public awareness campaigns on the peace process, many of us have actually submitted our agenda and demands to the peace panels for their inclusion in the agreement.

It is the most cherished aspiration of the Filipino people to have just and lasting peace – one that is not merely the absence of war but which is based on the resolution of the country’s core political and economic problems. The Filipino people are the central stakeholders in this process, and it is one which deserves the support of everyone who believe in the universal values of justice, peace, equality, and national sovereignty.#

International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines. The ICHRP is a global network of organizations based outside of the Philippines, committed to campaigning for human rights and Filipino people's rights.