On 11 July, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the Philippines that requests the UN human rights office to present a comprehensive report on human rights in the Philippines to the council next June. The resolution also expresses concern about the range of rights violations in the country and calls on the government to cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms and experts. The Philippine government earlier denounced the resolution as a “divisive motion” and sought to block it.
In June, a three-year-old girl became the youngest victim of the war on drugs after she was shot in the head during a drugs raid on her home. The response to her death by the former police chief, Senator Ronald dela Rosa, who said simply that “shit happens”, drew condemnation from international human rights groups.
The resolution, which was initiated by Iceland and approved by a vote of 18 to 14, is crucial for holding the government accountable for thousands of “drug war” killings and other abuses, said Human Rights Watch.
“The Human Rights Council resolution on the Philippines is a modest but vital measure,” said Laila Matar, deputy Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “It signals the start of accountability for thousands of ‘drug war’-related killings and other abuses, and will provide hope to countless survivors and families of victims.”
Maria Ressa, founder of Philippine news site Rappler and Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2018 for her journalism, told IOHR about the outrageous death toll of Duterte’s war on drugs. “Rappler has been reporting on the impunity in the Philippines’ brutal drug war since it began in July 2016. The PH Commission on Human Rights and the UN says at least 27,000 people have been killed since then. The police admit to at least 5,000 (with more than 30,000 homicide cases under investigation),” she said.
Ressa continued: “The real number killed was the first casualty in our country’s battle for truth. Iceland’s initiative and the UN vote provides some hope for accountability for the families of the victims – and hope that the impunity stops.”
The police have sought to justify the killings on the grounds that suspects “fought back.” Such claims are belied by reporting from human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, and domestic and international media that found police routinely plant evidence such as guns and drugs on victims’ bodies to justify killings.
“Countries determined to address the human rights crisis in the Philippines prevailed in the face of Manila’s ultimately counterproductive efforts to shield itself from scrutiny,” Matar said. “The challenge now is to ensure that the process moves quickly to compel the Philippine government to stop the killings and prosecute those responsible.”
While the resolution did not establish a full commission of enquiry, as many activists had hoped it would, the green light for Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations human rights chief, to begin investigations is the council’s strongest condemnation of Duterte’s actions yet and could have severe consequences. Amnesty International hailed the vote as “crucial”.
“This vote provides hope for thousands of bereaved families in the Philippines, and countless more Filipinos bravely challenging the Duterte administration’s murderous ‘war on drugs’, Amnesty International said in a statement. “It’s a crucial step towards justice and accountability.”
In Geneva, the Philippine government tried to deflect the issues raised in the resolution by waging an aggressive disinformation campaign against Iceland and those that supported the measure, including human rights groups and critics of the “drug war.” Previously, the Philippines, a member of the council, and Duterte himself sought to discredit the UN and the experts it appoints to investigate human rights issues.
Earlier this summer, UN human rights experts called on the United Nations to establish an independent investigation into human rights violations in the Philippines, citing a sharp deterioration in the situation of human rights across the country, including sustained attacks on people and institutions defending human rights.
“We have recorded a staggering number of unlawful deaths and police killings in the context of the so-called war on drugs, as well as killings of human rights defenders. Very few independent and effective investigations have taken place, independent media and journalists are threatened, the law has been weaponised to undermine press freedom, and the independence of the judiciary is undermined,” the experts said in a statement.
“It is time for the Human Rights Council to take action against these sustained attacks on human rights defenders and independent watchdog institutions.”
Independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council have raised their concerns with the Government of the Philippines on 33 occasions over the last three years.