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UN report: Widespread human rights violations in the Philippines

A heavy-handed focus on countering national security threats and illegal drugs has resulted in serious human rights violations in the Philippines, including killings and arbitrary detentions, as well as the vilification of dissent, reinforced by harmful rhetoric from high-level officials, a new report by the UN Human Rights Office says. Red-tagging, harassment and killings of trade unionists continues.

The report, which was mandated by a UN Human Rights Council resolution, noted that many of the human rights concerns it has documented are long-standing, but have become more acute in recent years. This has been manifested particularly starkly in the widespread and systematic killing of thousands of alleged drug suspects. Numerous human rights defenders have also been killed over the past five years.

Since the Government launched its campaign against illegal drugs in 2016, official figures indicate that at least 8,663 people have been killed, with some estimates putting the real toll at more than triple that number. The UN Human Rights Office has also documented that, between 2015 and 2019, at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists and trade unionists have been killed in relation to their work. There has been near impunity for these killings.

While the Philippines has a long-standing and robust tradition of human rights advocacy and activism, with more than 60,000 registered NGOs, human rights defenders have been subject to verbal and physical attacks, threats and legal harassment for nearly 20 years, the report states. The vilification of dissent and attacks against perceived critics, the report said, are being “increasingly institutionalized and normalized in ways that will be very difficult to reverse.”

The phenomenon of “red-tagging” – labelling individuals or groups (including human rights defenders and NGOs) as communists or terrorists – has posed a serious threat to civil society and freedom of expression. The report notes how in some cases those who have been red-tagged were subsequently killed. Others told the UN Human Rights Office they had received death threats or sexually-charged comments in private messages or on social media.

Red-tagging, harassment and killings of trade unionists continues. Intervention by State security forces in union meetings and affairs, threats and profiling of members – including of a national alliance of teachers – have been reported. The International Labour Organization Committee on Freedom of Association has also raised concerns about “blanket linkages of trade unions to an insurgency” placing unionists in situations of extreme insecurity.

Human rights violations documented in the Philippines have been exacerbated by harmful rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of the Government, which the report described as “pervasive and deeply damaging.” That rhetoric has ranged from degrading comments against women human rights defenders to incitement to extreme violence against civil society actors, journalists, people who use and sell drugs, and indigenous peoples.

“The Philippines faces major challenges – structural poverty, inequality, armed conflict, frequent natural disasters, and now the COVID-19 crisis,” UN High Commissioner Bachelet says. “It is vital the Government’s responses be grounded in human-rights approaches and guided by meaningful dialogue. Accountability and full transparency for alleged violations are essential for building public trust. Unfortunately, the report has documented deep-seated impunity for serious human rights violations, and victims have been deprived of justice for the killings of their loved ones.

The report is based on 893 written submissions, substantial input from the Government of the Philippines, analysis of legislation, police reports, court documents, videos, photos and other open source material, as well as interviews with victims and witnesses. It is due to be discussed at the next UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva.


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