Philippine Government Showcase Bombarded with a Barrage of Queries from UN Body against Torture

Geneva, Switzerland – The rather oversized 27-member Philippine government delegation to the 42nd Session of the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT), headed by Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, faced a continuous barrage of questions from all ten members of the said Committee after Ermita read the Philippine government report on April 28, the scheduled start of the review of the Philippine government’s compliance with its commitments under the anti-torture convention.

With an unusually large group to represent the Philippine government in the review of its compliance to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment and Punishment, Secretary Ermita boasted to the Committee that their delegation of senior officials and technical experts is a proof of the government`s “unwavering commitment to human rights” particularly the Convention. He gloated that the Philippine Government is “proud of the gains it has achieved with regard to its compliance with the Convention” and is one with the Committee in “championing the cause of human rights.” He claimed to the Committee in the presence of Philippine and international human rights NGOs, torture survivors farmer Raymond Manalo and Pastor Berlin Guerrero, the Philippine Human Rights Commission Chairperson Leila de Lima, House of Representatives Committee on Human Rights Chairperson Rep. Lorenzo Tanada III, and the press that the government “neither engages in nor encourages acts of torture.”

After Ermita`s opening statement which lasted for half an hour, a litany questions and comments very critical of the report began to rain heavily on the delegation.  Felice Gaer, CAT`s rapporteur for the Philippines asked Ermita why the Philippines which ratified the treaty against torture twenty years ago took so long before a report has been made.  Gaer also commented on the lack of substance of the 49-page Philippine report.

She also observed that the government seems to have many safeguards in place in order to prevent torture but asked why torture is continuously being practiced by military, police and security forces.

Xuexian Wang, the Committee`s vice chairperson and another rapporteur on the Philippines, asked Ermita if the government knew of  the 1,016 documented victims of torture reported by Karapatan which the organization’s secretary general Marie Hilao-Enriquez  reported to the Committee.

Earlier, human rights group Karapatan, torture victims Manalo and Guerrero, together with other human rights NGOs, briefed the Committee members on the human rights situation under the Arroyo administration.  In the meeting, Committee members showed keen  interest in the real score of human rights and spoke well of the courage of the victims to tell their tales of ordeals to the UN committee. In an opportunity considered by Geneva-based human rights NGOs as “seldom or rare,” Manalo and Guerrero were allowed by the UNCAT to personally testify before the Committee.  A former member of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also made the same comment.

Another member of the Committee asked Ermita about what the government is doing to increase the security of human rights defenders. This query sprang from the killings of several members of Karapatan particularly the killing of Eden Marcellana and farmer Eddie Gumanoy who are believed to be victims of former General Jovito Palparan`s extrajudicial executions.

The range of questions which lasted one and a half hours in a room at Palais Wilson – half of which were occupied by members of the Philippine government delegation and the Philippine Mission to the UN – run the gamut of issues like extrajudicial killings, disappearances, the Human Security Act, command responsibility, impunity, exploitation of migrants, children and women, judicial procedure and mechanisms, and the specific cases of labor lawyer Remigdio Saladero Jr., peace advocate Angie Ipong, Manalo brothers, UP students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño, among others.

At the end of the fielding of questions, Mr. Ermita told the Committee that his delegation will have to meet and said that they will answer the questions at the April 29 afternoon session reserved for the Philippine government replies.

With the observation that the “high-level” Philippine government delegation presented a belated report that was long in rhetoric and short in meaning because it was replete with merely formal guarantees, a litany of laws - both relevant and others ridiculously irrelevant- and a ticker-tape parade of human rights bodies and structures, Atty. Edre Olalia, Karapatan Special Legal Consultant for UN Mechanisms foresees that the government`s reply to the stream of issues and questions raised by the Committee would either make clear the government`s total disregard for human rights or simply prove once again that it is all the while lying through its teeth and pretending as champion for human rights before the international community.###

*KARAPATAN is a member of the Philippine UPR Watch, a network of human rights advocates and families of victims of human rights abuses. It has sent delegations last April and June 2008 to Geneva, Switzerland to attend sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council particularly for the Universal Periodic Review.