MANILA, Philippines -- The Philippine government, under attack by rights groups for its poor record in defending and protecting human rights, has been busy these past months propping up its image in the international community.
The Foreign Affairs department in early June declared its "success" in defending the country's human rights record before the United Nations' Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva.
Despite criticisms from local human rights organizations, the Department of Foreign Affairs said the Philippines' "constructive and transparent engagement" with the UPR process was warmly welcomed" by member states of the Human Rights Council (HRC).
The Philippine government report had a rough sailing when the UPR Working Group held consultations with various government agencies and civil society organizations early this year (several human rights groups snubbed the consultations.)
Fortunately for the Philippines, several member states of the HRC commended the country's "voluntary commitments" and for "considering" recommendations to improve the country's human rights situation.
Ambassador Erlinda Basilio, Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, said the Philippines had always attached the "highest priority to the protection and promotion of human rights."
The Philippines was recognized by the HRC in areas such as the protection of the rights of women and children, migrant workers, poverty alleviation, social amelioration and the abolition of the death penalty.
"The Philippines was one of the countries deeply involved in the establishment of the HRC, which succeeded the former UN Commission on Human Rights. It had played a lead role in elaborating the UPR procedure, which is aimed at promoting human rights on a global scale in an inclusive and non-discriminatory manner," the DFA said in a statement.
Human rights groups, however, were not satisfied by the Report as they called on the HRC to "keep pursuing our government to stop the extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations."
In an oral intervention before the UN body, various human rights groups – the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, the Asian Legal Resource Center, the World Council of Churches and a Philippine NGO delegation - supported the findings presented by Phillip Alston, the UN Human Rights Council special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions who visited the Philippines last year.
Alston in his report linked members of the Armed Forces to the killings of leftist activists, indigenous peoples, trade union workers, farmers and even human rights workers. Alston said the Armed Forces is in a "state of denial" over the alleged human rights violations.
Representatives of the human rights organizations insisted that the human rights situation in the country will not improve "unless the counter-insurgency policy (of the government) changes and the other recommendations made by [Alston] are seriously carried out."
Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita led the delegation presenting the Philippine Report to the HRC. "We are proud of the achievements we have made in human rights," Ermita said before submitting the report.
"Like all countries, we cannot say we have a perfect record but we have instituted programs and policies that are making an impact and this is what the international system wants to see," he added.
Ermita said: "Human rights is much broader than [extrajudicial killings]. We will discuss areas as various as micro-finance projects to empower people economically, (as well as) basic services and provisions."
The Philippines, in its Report to the HRC, presented the following voluntary commitments:
- to develop a gender-responsive approach, especially to protect children and women;- to further develop domestic legislation to better protect the rights of the child;- to continue to address the issue of extrajudicial killings; and - to meet the basic needs of the poor and other vulnerable sectors.
Speaking before the HRC, Basilio said the government "neither engages in nor encourages torture or extrajudicial killings of any kind." She said the government will take steps to address cases of extrajudicial killings and other forms of political violence.
Despite the criticisms of human rights groups, the Foreign Affairs department said the government "will continue to welcome civil society as a partner in human rights, including in the follow-up to the UPR and the Second Philippine Human Rights Action Plan."
Basilio pledged the country's "continuing strong support for the UPR process, and our confidence that it can further contribute to the effective implementation of human rights standards on the ground, where it matters most, as all countries seek to ensure greater enjoyment of human rights to their peoples."
Back in Manila, however, human rights groups said justice for human rights victims is elusive. Amnesty International said killings and enforced disappearances continue while activists, journalists and ordinary people continue to live in fear because perpetrators remain scot-free.
"The wheels of justice are very slow in the country," said Aurora Parong, section director of Amnesty International in the Philippines.
Although cases have been filed against alleged perpetrators of summary executions, "justice remains elusive and the possibility of getting genuine justice remains unsure," she said.
"This is because forensic investigations of human rights violations are not done with due diligence, either because of unwillingness to do so or because of incompetence to do good investigations," Parong added.
She said that Amnesty International recognizes the efforts of the Philippine judiciary for reforms, including the institution of the writ of amparo and the writ of habeas data, which can be used by victims of human rights violations in seeking redress. But Parong noted that measures such as these are not known by most Filipinos.
The law and the judiciary must be brought closer to the people while legislators should work to improve the country's witness protection program.
Even the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), a constitutional body whose commissioners are appointed by the President, agreed that "much more remains to be done" in human rights work in the Philippines.
Commissioner Cecilia R.V. Quisumbing said: "Justice may have been slow so far but we can see progress along the spectrum of criminal trials."
She said the new set of commissioners who started their term in May will monitor the government's compliance with international human rights commitments.
In her report to the HRC on June 3, Quisumbing acknowledged the "growing incidence of killings of activists since 2004." She, however, said that the Philippine government "has taken several steps since 2006 to address this issue."
Quisumbing insisted that "there is no State policy that approves of or encourages such killings" even as she added that the government "must increase its efforts to ensure that the momentum is not only maintained but accelerated and these violations be stopped once and for all."
She said the CHR "expresses its appreciation for the constructive comments" of Alston, especially for his recognition that "non-state actors have also played a role in extrajudicial killings." Quisumbing noted that after the Alston report came out both government and civil society groups reported a "significant drop in incidences" of human rights violations.
"There is a notable drop in statements by military commanders in the field that could be taken to label activists as enemies of the state and therefore legitimate targets in counter-insurgency efforts," she said.
The reported positive response of HRC member states to the Philippine report excited government representatives, but human rights groups are not convinced.
"The Philippine government claimed that members of the UN [HRC] applauded the report of the Philippines. But reviewing the proceedings of the UPR reveals that this boast is not entirely accurate," said youth activist Mong Palatino, regional editor for Southeast Asia of Global Voices Online.
He said the official report of the government is full of inconsistencies and unfounded assertions.
"In short the Philippine government lied to convince the international community that it is doing everything to improve the human rights situation in the country," Palatino said.
He said the Philippine government reported that it held two national consultations to draft the UPR report. But civil society groups were unaware of these meetings, Palatino said, adding that recommendations made by non-government groups were not integrated into the Report.
Palatino observed that the government report was full of "motherhood statements."
Among the highlights presented by the government report are:
1) The creation and strengthening of institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights;
2) The improvement of its human rights record, through strengthening institutions, mainstreaming human rights and improving human rights education;
3) The pursuit of good governance, in accordance with the principle of a rights-based approach to development;
4) Human rights advocacy and programs responding to the demands of vulnerable sectors; and
5) Human rights promotion and protection during the current peace processes.
Palatino quoted human rights groups as saying they were "outraged by the unrepentant and self-delusional claims by the government of its human rights record before the international community."
While the Foreign Affairs department reported that the government's presentation was well-applauded, Palatino said activists who attended the UPR session insisted that the applause was initiated and came mostly from the rest of the Filipino bureaucrats who formed part of the Philippine government's 40-member team.
A journal of the HRC noted that during the Philippine presentation "...several UN bodies were concerned about the lack of appropriate measures to deal with crimes allegedly committed by state security forces and agents and the insecurity surrounding journalists, human rights activists, and the overly vague new Human Security Act."
With reactions like these, the Philippine government seems to still have a long way to go to make its human rights image shine. (Jose Torres, Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project)