Empty PH gov’t response to UN human rights review portends continued violations

Geneva, Switzerland – The Philippine government’s response to the numerous concerns of United Nations (UN) member states about the human rights situation in the country confirms that rights violations are likely to continue under the new Marcos Jr administration.

In a plenary session, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) today (Monday, March 27) adopted the fourth Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report on the Philippines’ human rights record. The report highlighted views and recommendations on unresolved human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, illegal detention, torture and other forms of human rights violations. Many states voiced concern about red-tagging, anti-terrorism efforts not conforming to human rights standards, and attacks on journalists and human rights defenders. Persistent poverty, joblessness, inequality and addressing climate change were also noted.

All throughout the UPR process, the government put up a façade and claimed to uphold human rights in the country. It has brazenly tried to cover up its accountability not just for violating the civil and political rights (CPR) of tens of thousands of victims but also for failing to promote the economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) of tens of millions of Filipinos.

The government delegation’s statements today confirm its dark intent to keep protecting perpetrators of gross human rights violations including from the previous Duterte administration. It also shows its insincerity in addressing deeply entrenched poverty, inequality and underdevelopment, as well as in tackling environmental distress and climate change.

Continuing civil and political rights violations

The Philippine government plays up accepting 215 of 289 recommendations made by UN member states, over two-fifths of which were on CPR and almost three-fifths on ESCR. However, the quantity belies their quality and the true value of the accepted recommendations on the ground will range from limited to inconsequential. This is even assuming that they are all implemented which the government has a poor track record of doing.

The Marcos Jr administration accepted over 90 recommendations on civil and political rights but systematically refused to support the most critical recommendations for genuinely improving the human rights situation – taking these as merely noted, which is diplomatic-speak for rejection. These included the crucial recommendations to re-accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), to issue standing invitations to UN special procedures, to end the so-called war on drugs, and to take various urgent measures to uphold civil and political rights.

The government spurned dozens of important recommendations: to end extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, illegal detention, torture, red-tagging, and attacks on media freedom; to protect journalists and human rights defenders; to review the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), Anti-Terrorism Law and other abusive mechanisms and revise these; and to conduct thorough and impartial investigations towards accountability and ending impunity. It does this to self-servingly protect state and state-sponsored perpetrators of gross human rights violations, also shown by its dismal record of three prosecutions and convictions for drug-related extrajudicial killings since 2016.

The government’s response exposes the emptiness of supposed measures to address the problem such as Administrative Order 35 which ostensibly created an inter-agency committee to resolve worsening political violence. Even the United Nations Joint Programme (UNJP) is extremely lacking any real mechanisms and tools for accountability. The country is sorely lacking serious instruments for ensuring justice for victims and preventing additional violations. The administration even opposes passage of the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill.

By its actions and omissions, the Marcos Jr administration is sending the signal that it is allowing continued and widespread violations of human rights justified as part of its so-called war on drugs and as part of its anti-terrorism campaign. This creates the conditions for thousands more victims under its term in the years to come. This trend is already clear with 227 drug-related killings since the start of the current administration.

The daylight abduction of teacher organizer April Dyan Gumanao and her partner in Cebu is only a recent example of the brazenness of attacks. The repressive Anti-Terrorism Law was also recently used to spuriously designate community doctor Naty Castro as a “terrorist” without due process. Free expression and freedom of association are relentlessly repressed. The number of political prisoners continues to rise.

The threat of violations of international humanitarian law is growing especially in the countryside. Recently, in the provinces of Kalinga and Cagayan in Northern Luzon, indiscriminate aerial bombings and artillery fire caused distress among civilian and indigenous communities and disrupted livelihoods.

Unmet social and economic rights

The Marcos Jr administration accepted over 120 recommendations on economic, social and cultural rights. The government’s obligations to respect, protect and fulfil these rights certainly demands expansive efforts. Yet while some of the commitments made may address concerns of certain vulnerable groups, any gains will be incremental at best and fall far short of the substantial reforms needed to improve the economic conditions of tens of millions of Filipinos.

The overwhelming number of ESCR recommendations accepted were mainly on education, sexual abuse and exploitation of children, persons with disabilities, migrant workers and trafficking, and violence against women. If implemented, these will directly benefit the targeted groups. Many other recommendations accepted were merely about generic statements on tackling climate change and poverty.

The government however does not really make any meaningful commitments on fundamental reforms that would benefit millions more. This includes direct interventions to improve income and wealth distribution such as substantial wage hikes to achieve a family living wage, urgent emergency cash assistance, and more progressive taxes such as higher income taxes on the rich and large corporations or a wealth tax.

Nor are there any commitments to address the structural problems of agricultural and industrial backwardness causing widespread joblessness and economic dependence on foreign powers. There is also only the charade of taking steps to address climate change and environmental distress.

The Marcos Jr administration’s behavior exposes its empty development rhetoric. As much as 75-85 million (70-80%) Filipinos are poor and vulnerable by reasonable standards of poverty, especially after the disastrous pandemic response of the previous Duterte administration. Yet the government has only pretended to address inflation which has been accelerating virtually since it took office to its worst in nearly 15 years and the third highest in Southeast Asia – driving 70% of Filipinos into hunger or borderline hunger.

The administration cut the budget for urgent cash assistance and only gives enough for the pretense of intervention. It is also refusing wage hikes arguing that a low-wage economy is needed to attract foreign investment. Tens of thousands of small jeepney (minibus) drivers and operators were only recently forced to launch a transport strike against a modernization plan that would displace them and make commuter fares more expensive. It is also fast-tracking large mining projects and investments.

The government is playing up incremental progress on scanty ESCR recommendations to divert from its efforts to support the accumulation of profits and wealth by an elite few including close political and oligarchic allies. While there is austerity in the national budget for health, housing, education and social services, there is a budget increase for corporate-friendly infrastructure projects. Laws on public-private partnerships and water privatization are being pushed to press turning public infrastructure and water services into profitable opportunities for big business. Even the 1987 Constitution threatens to be changed not just for a self-serving political agenda but also to further deliver the economy to foreign capital.

Superficial steps

The steps that the Marcos Jr administration claims to be taking to resolve human rights problems are superficial. It commits only to recommendations of limited gain and which do not strike at the core problems resulting in human rights violations.

The government’s policies on the drug war are abusive and those on closing civic and democratic space are repressive. It refuses important recommendations to be able to maintain the abusive and repressive legal apparatus set up by the previous Duterte administration.

The human rights situation will worsen under the Marcos Jr administration astride impunity for violators including under the previous Duterte administration. The government has shown that it will not take concrete steps to end impunity for human rights violations, to investigate and prosecute those responsible, and to provide reparations to the victims and their families. There will be no accountability and justice for the tens of thousands of victims of human rights violations in the country. Political and economic elites will remain in power while tens of millions of Filipinos are denied real and meaningful development and dignified lives.

Human rights defenders and civil society groups will continue working tirelessly to document and expose human rights violations, and work towards creating a society where human rights are respected and protected for all. ###


The PH UPR Watch delegation is composed of members of Karapatan, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, IBON Foundation, Alliance of Concerned Teachers, National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, and the International Coalition on Human Rights in the Philippines.