A Gathering Storm On Human Rights

While Filipinos, like the rest of the world, are so fixated on how to contain the spread of the coronavirus, many amongst us are doubly concerned by gathering storm on human rights. Indeed, human rights violations in the country have reached pandemic levels. We are at the abyss on our basic rights, with the looming effectivity of the newly signed Anti-Terrorism Law which allows the President through his handpicked Anti-Terrorism Council, the ability to brand anyone as a terrorist.  We must work very hard to step back from that and be safe again.

One good thing going for us is the growing international attention on the human rights in the Philippines. In this and succeeding columns, I will present to my readers the salient features of the Report of the UN High Commissioner on the Human Rights Situation in the Philippines, including its recommendations. It’s a powerful accurate report that documents crimes against humanity being committed in the Philippines and finds that our executive, legislative and judicial institutions are unable to respond adequately to the atrocities that are happening.

This precarious situation of human rights is because of a president and his enablers in government who continue to instigate, encourage and empower human rights violations and persistent impunity by the military, police and other agencies who enforce a declared policy. Targeted are media practitioners, activists, legal professionals, churchmen, and most of all drug personalities. Indeed, vilification of dissent and extrajudicial killings, particularly of drug personalities and social activists, including defenders of human rights and the environment, have become so pervasive and brutal that the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted Resolution 41/2 calling on the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights  to prepare a comprehensive written report on the situation of human rights in the Philippines and to present it at its 44th session.

Pursuant to Resolution 41/2, the High Commissioner prepared a 26-page report published on June 4, on the human rights situation in the country. The report highlighted “the staggering cost of the relentless and systematic assault on the most basic rights of Filipinos at the hands of the Government.” Further, experts said that “COVID-19 has further accelerated the downward spiral of the human rights situation in the Philippines. Police and the military have used violence and lethal force to enforce a quarantine imposed without due consideration for the situation of the poorest and most vulnerable communities,” the experts said. “In response to the protests of poor Filipinos demanding food aid amid the COVID-19 lockdown, President Duterte reportedly authorized police and security forces to kill protesters saying: ‘Do you understand? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I’ll send you to the grave’.”

The report issued by the Office of the High Commission on Human Rights (OCCHR) has found many examples of such rhetoric and concluded that it could amount to incitement to violence and may be in violation of the ICCPR’s prohibition on arbitrary deprivation of life. According to the UN experts, the human rights situation in the Philippines has now reached a level of gravity requiring a robust intervention by the UN. The Human Rights Council must do everything in its power to prevent the continuation of widespread and systematic human rights abuses against the Philippines people.” Among others, since President Duterte took office in 2016 and launched his brutal anti-drug campaign, 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. Duterte`s four years as president has surpassed the number of extrajudicial killings during the 20 year Marcos dictatorial rule which, according to Amnesty International, totaled only 3,257 known extrajudicial killings, excluding the 35,000 documented tortures, 77 ‘disappeared’, and 70,000 incarcerations that happened during the 20-year reign of terror by the late President Ferdinand Marcos.

Against this grim backdrop of abuses, every one of us should be aware and learn, not to take everything sitting down and become mere spectators, but to proactively push back for as the oft-quoted saying of philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And perhaps we may be suffering the ravages of the present because we have nonchalantly ignored the lessons of EDSA 1 and conveniently forgotten the dark history of the Marcos dictatorship.

There is a gathering storm on human rights. It brings with it enormous suffering for the nation and for our people. Let’s unite to fight it.

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