(Initial) Critique of the Philippine government Report on Human Rights in the Philippines for the third Cycle of the UN Universal Periodic Review May 2017

For the third time, the Philippine Government goes through the Universal Periodic Review to check whether there have been improvements in the human rights situation and whether the recommendations under the previous two UPR sessions are complied with. The review covers the last four and half (4 and 1/2) years of the administration of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III and ten (10) months of the administration of President Rodrigo R. Duterte. In its opening statement of its Report to the UPR Working Group of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Philippine government 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”. This affirmation does not fully reveal the reality on the human right situation in the Philippines, and the Report, as a whole, failed to implement the recommendations as contained in the 2012 UPR.

The Philippine Government  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, minimum wage, unemployment and socialized housing.

It also listed several actions designed to address the issues and concerns of the “vulnerable sectors” like women and children, including the issues of human trafficking. 

In the same Report, the Philippine Government denies the existence of a 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 reflective of this 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. Socio-economic issues that affect socio-economic and cultural rights have not been fully addressed, and there have been no concrete steps towards this end.

The Philippine Government under both the Aquino and Duterte administrations cannot gloss over the following issues for which it is accountable:

1. No concrete steps have been taken to address socio-economic and sectoral issues, including those involving the vulnerable sectors. 

There is no obvious difference between the economic agenda of the Aquino and the Duterte administrations. They focus on palliatives that do not address the root causes of poverty.

The issue of contractualization, minimum wage and unemployment were not concretely and appropriately addressed, and there is no clear policy being implemented that will address these issues in the immediate future. D.O. 174, which was issued to supposedly solve the issue of contractualization, does not squarely address the issue. It does not prohibit contractualization, but encourages, and provide legal justification for such practice.

To date, no genuine agrarian reform has been implemented, and no serious effort is being undertaken to address this issue. Lands that were supposed to be covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law has been used to circumvent the distribution of land to farmer beneficiaries, like the Hacienda Luisita which has been ordered to be distributed by the Supreme Court in 2012. Pres. Aquino failed and refused to implement such Supreme Court resolution, and his family, who owns Hacienda Luisita, have continuously defied the Supreme Court resolution and refused to comply therewith.

Another case is Lapanday Foods Corporation where attempts to install farmer-beneficiaries were foiled by the defiance of the land owner and the refusal of the Armed forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police to provide assistance to the Department of Agrarian Reform.

The Philippine Government failed to comply with the people’s right to adequate housing, specially of the informal settlers. The socialized housing projects it mentioned in the report, which were built during the period of administration of Pres. Aquino are not compliant with the standards of “adequate housing” as set  by the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. The housing units are sub-standard and are not fit for human habitation, and there is a glaring lack of basic utilities and social services. All of these projects are located in places far from where the settlers have their employment or sources of income. While the present administration made a public pronouncement to award to informal settlers the vacant and deteriorating housing projects intended for military and police personal, no concrete steps have been made to commence the process for such.

On the issue of children’s rights, the PH government falls short of protecting the rights of children, even with the  mentioned ten laws in its report. More so, laws like the Strengthened Juvenile Justice and Welfare Law (RA 10630) is now up for amendment to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility of children in conflict with the law from 15 to nine years old. Government shifts the blame on erring children, instead of providing rehabilitative and age-appropriate services and treating them as victims of socio-economic inequities. Proxy indicators of poverty, which include unemployment, landlessness, inaccessibility of social services, create a social reality that jeopardizes the rights and welfare of children, placing them in conditions of extreme desperation and hopelessness.  Four million children are still out-of-school and 2.1 million children are into child labor.  Children, especially from the indigenous and Moro communities, are forced to stop attending classes due to massive military operations. Nine of them were killed, six survived the attempted killings of soldiers, and four were tortured and arrested as “child soldiers”.

On the right of the government’s pronouncement of pro-women laws such as the Magna Carta of Women and the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health (RPRH) Law fails to uplift the condition of women. The implementation of Magna Carta remains difficult to monitor at the workplace due to the absence of any monitoring mechanism by relevant agencies. Marginalized women could hardly feel the impact of the much-touted Gender and Development (GAD) budget. The policy of privatization of public health services supersede any reproductive health law since it fails to provide free and quality health services to women. Data of violence like rape has been recorded at 10,298 where 75% of the victims are young girls. By end of 2015, 43 women rights defenders were arrested on trumped up charges. Majority of them are still languishing in jail.  At present, harassment against women leaders and organizers by elements of the state’s Armed Forces continue.

2. The killings continue unabated.

Despite the Philippine Government’s denial on a State policy on EJKs, the fact remains that 334 activists, human rights defenders, leaders and members of sectoral organizations have been killed under the Aquino administration. These killings continue under the Duterte Administration where 55 similar killings, and more than 8,000 drug related killings have been reported.

While the government report cited the creation of the inter-agency committee on extra-legal killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, by virtue of former President Benigno Aquino III’s Administrative Order 35, no information was provided on the output and impact of the said task force. No conviction has been attained in any of the said cases, nor has there been swift and impartial prosecution, while many of the State perpetrators have not been arrested to this day. The Aquino government’s accountability can never be glossed over by task forces that have not rendered justice and have instead acted as elegant smokescreens to absolve the perpetrators.

The same AO cannot be used solely to determine whether there is extra-judicial killings in the Philippines. It appears that the existence of such order is being used to provide a legal justification for the Government to deny the existence of drug-related killings.

3. The Civil and Political Rights of the people are still being violated.

To this date, and despite the Government’s avowal, there are indications of the Government’s utter disregard for the respect of the peoples’ civil and political rights.

In the course of the implementation of its counter-insurgency program, Oplan Bayanihan, the Philippine Government, under Pres. Aquino disregarded basic rights supposedly guaranteed and protected by the Constitution. Targeting personalities associated with political and sectoral organizations labelled as “communist front organizations”, and innocent civilians, various human rights violations were committed. Aside from extrajudicial killings, illegal arrest, detention, torture and other violations have been committed. The Aquino Administration continued the practice of filing of trumped up charges against the same group, and as a result, there were 524 political prisoners under his administration.

The assumption into office of President Duterte in July 2016 did not result in any substantial change in the civil and political rights situation in the Philippines. The same violations are still being committed in the course of the implementation of its own counter-insurgency program which was ironically named “Oplan Kapayapaan”. The violations, including the illegal arrest, detention and the filing of trumped up charges are evidence that the Duterte Administration carried over the same policy that governed Oplan Bayanihan.

4. In line with the US Pivot to Asia and driven by the US Counter-Insurgency Guide of 2009, the GPH implemented counter-insurgency programs Oplan Bayanihan and the current Oplan Kapayapaan, in connivance with, and with full political and financial support of, the US government, in its continuing attempt to target groups asserting independence and sovereignty and individuals tagged as members or supporters of these groups. The GPH military operations resulted in massive displacement of communities in rural areas, including ancestral lands of national minorities. Through the US-RP Visiting Forces Agreement and US-GPH Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, US military troops maintained their presence and military installations in the Philippines. The October 2014 murder of transgender Jennifer Laude is an emblematic case, a repeat of several rights abuses committed by US soldiers in Philippine territory.

5. The Philippine Government, on one hand, under the administration of Pres. Duterte, has paved the way to resume the stalled peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). If both parties, especially the government, follow the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), there is bound to be a marked improvement of the situation on the ground. The recent round of formal talks ended with a positive note with both parties agreeing that the principle of free distribution of land to farmers and peasants would uphold social, economic and cultural rights. This will have great impact on the economic situation of the people. There is also the possibility of a joint ceasefire.

6. The Philippine report also misleads the public 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 who are the supposed first batch, whose applications were approved with finality only on May 8 this year. 

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.