Groups, victim to UN: No justice, no peace under Marcos Jr. government

Rights group Karapatan, local and international lawyers, and an abduction survivor belied assertions by Philippine government that the human rights situation in the Philippines has improved under the Ferdinand Marcos Jr. administration.

In an oral statement at the ongoing 52nd Regular Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva Switzerland, Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said that while the Philippine government has accepted about three-fourths of the recommendations made in the Universal Periodic Review last November 2022, there remains no substantial improvement on the state of civic and democratic space in the country.

Palabay, Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC) and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) that counts National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) as its Philippine affiliate, and recent Cebu abduction and enforced disappearance survivor April Dyan Gumanao spoke as the human rights situation in the Philippines is again on the global spotlight.

“Government policies on the counterinsurgency and drug war have not been rescinded, resulting in continuing extrajudicial killings, including those of human rights defenders,” Palabay told the international body.

Palabay added that government task forces or panels created to look into reports of human rights violations failed to investigate and successfully prosecute perpetrators and senior government officials who ordered the killings.

She added that the Joint Programme the Philippine government entered into with the UN also lacks the necessary accountability tools that can deliver justice to the victims.

Instead, Palabay said that the Marcos government continues with the persecution and criminalization of human rights defenders, political dissenters, even journalists, including acts that incite violence against them through red-tagging, vilification and the use of laws on terrorism and libel.

Even social service providers are not exempt from the attacks, Palabay said, citing the case of community doctor Naty Castro who the government designated as “terrorist” without evidence and jeepney drivers who recently went on a national strike and were red-tagged.

Palabay reported that the number of political prisoners have risen while members of many community organizations face intimidation and threats of arrests and abduction.

“We call on the Philippine government to stop the persecution of defenders, journalists and dissenters, and to enact the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill,” Palabay appealed.

She added that the Philippines’ laws on terrorism and libel violate the right to due process, free expression, press freedom and freedom of association, among other constitutional rights.

“We renew our call to the (UNHR) Council for an independent investigation into the cases of extrajudicial killings and other grave rights violations in the Philippines,” she said.

‘Cease the vilification and killings of lawyers’

In a separate oral statement, LRWC and the IADL called for a stop the vilification and extrajudicial killings of lawyers and human rights defenders in the Philippines.

“We are gravely concerned that lawyers and human rights defenders continue to be arrested or killed with impunity. Vilification and political persecution of defenders are facilitated by false claims by the government that human rights issues are a result of competing human rights or insurgency,” Erin Riley-Oettl of the lawyers’ groups said.

The lawyers said that rights defenders in the Philippines are criminalized using the Anti-Terrorism Law of 2020, which fails to conform to international law due to its vague definition of terrorism.

“The law’s processes allow the Philippine Anti-Terrorism Council to declare individuals as “terrorists” with no evidence and a de facto presumption of guilt, Riley-Oettl said.

“The administrative remedies to allow individuals to challenge their ‘terrorist’ status are ineffective and even illusory. This has facilitated government use of red-tagging resulting in hundreds of extrajudicial killings. Lawyers and defenders who advocate for those accused of terrorism or drug offences have been attacked, killed, or subjected to bogus charges, she added.

LRWC and the IADL revealed that since 2016, potentially tens of thousands of people have been extrajudicially killed, including dozens of lawyers, rights defenders and indigenous peoples’ advocates. It added that there are currently 819 political prisoners in the country.

The lawyers said the perpetrators of extrajudicial killings or other human rights violations rarely face charges, resulting in an ongoing climate of impunity.

They added that the Interagency Review Panel created to review the anti-drug killings under former President Rodrigo Duterte has failed to result in any prosecutions. Documentation of violations by the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines and UN agencies is hindered by lack of adequate access to information.

“We call on the Council to insist that the Philippines immediately halt the political persecution of lawyers and human rights defenders, the impunity for killing defenders, and to adopt the Human Rights Defenders Bill. We urge the Council to create an adequately resourced, independent investigative mechanism to investigate extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights violations in the Philippines,” Riley-Oettl said.

Speaking for other enforced disappearance victims

Meanwhile, Alliance of Concerned Teachers-Region 7 coordinator, abducted in public and broad daylight with partner Armand Dayoha, took the floor of the UNHRC session through an oral statement.

“We were abducted by men who introduced themselves as policemen last January 10, in Cebu City, in full view of other passengers, port workers, and even port security. We were brought to numerous places, interrogated relentlessly, and made to sign documents to become state agents. We were held for five days until we were rescued on January 16. Prior to our abduction, we also experienced a series of tailing, surveillance, and red-tagging,” Gumanao said.

Gumanao added that there had been twenty-two other victims of enforced disappearances but, unlike them, remain missing. Two of the victims were abducted under the Marcos Jr. presidency.

“We call on this Council to urge the Philippine government to accept UPR recommendations pertaining to the adoption of legislation establishing a national preventive mechanism on torture, to strengthen the mechanisms to end extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances,” she appealed.

Palabay’s oral statement was on behalf of the global alliance of civil society organization Civicus while Gumanao spoke on behalf of The Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches. #

Attached are copies of the above mentioned oral statements.