MANILA – The Philippine government denied allegations of reprisals against human rights groups and advocates in the Philippines that cooperate with the United Nations (UN), a report by the UN chief to the UN Human Rights Council said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in his report, told the 47-member body that on June 21 this year, the Philippine government responded to allegations of intimidation and retaliation against the Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR), detained Sen. Leila de Lima, Karapatan and other indigenous peoples and rights groups which were detailed in his 2018 report.
Guterres had reported that members of the CHR, particularly its chair, Chito Gascon, have been subjected to surveillance by government agents. This surveillance, he said, continued until May this year.
In the same report, the UN chief cited a UN working group’s opinion that declared De Lima’s detention as “arbitrary” and the drug-related charges against her “politically motivated.” It also called for her immediate release and an investigation into her detention.
De Lima has been detained since February 2017.
In response, the Philippine government touted the “unprecedented increase” of the CHR’s budget by over 60% in the past year.
It also defended its right to respond to criticisms.
“[L]abelling Government’s statements as acts of reprisals and intimidation is a curtailment of the role of State actors in any democratic process,” the UN secretary-general quoted the Philippine government as saying.
The Philippine government also insisted it is “improper” for the UN to intervene in De Lima’s case in light of concerns for the independence and impartiality of the judicial process.
Aside from the UN, several international organizations and personalities -- the latest, Florida Senator Marco Rubio of the US– have called for De Lima’s release.
In his 2018 report, Guterres also noted incidents of alleged red-tagging such as the Justice department’s filing of a petition in a Manila court seeking to declare the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the New People’s Army (NPA) and more than 600 individuals as terrorists, as well as the creation of an anti-insurgency task force under Executive Order 70.
A Manila court eventually trimmed down the list of more than 600 individuals to 2, identifying only CPP chairman Jose Maria Sison and Antonio Cabanatan, Secretary of the Mindanao Commission, as having “undisputed links” to the CPP-NPA. The case remains pending.
Among those initially included on the list but who were later cleared are National Democratic Front consultant Rafael Baylosis, United Nations Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, and former Bayan Muna Representative Satur Ocampo.
Rights group Karapatan, whose members were also among those initially listed, claimed government agents subjected its members to continued threats, harassment, intimidation and smear campaigns. Some government officials also reportedly called for a stop to its funding.
But the Philippine government criticized Karapatan for allegedly operating “unlawfully” because its corporate existence and registration have supposedly been ordered revoked for non-filing of reports.
It also said: “Karapatan has failed to substantiate its figures concerning human rights violations or present evidence before an independent domestic body created to look into the allegations.”
In justifying the creation of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, the Philippine government told the UN Secretary-General that “some indigenous peoples and rights defenders have been exploited by terrorist organizations,” further claiming misuse of the international system.
UN SECGEN CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The discussion on the Philippines was part of the UN secretary-general’s updates on the human rights situation in countries which were mentioned during his previous reports.
In his 2019 report, Guterres expressed concern over the use of national security arguments and counter-terrorism strategies to justify blocking access to the United Nations.
“Reported cases include individuals or organizations being charged with terrorism, blamed for cooperation with foreign entities or accused of damaging the reputation or security of the State. These have also been used to justify restrictions on foreign funding,” he said, without mentioning any specific country.
“A disproportionate number of cases of enforced disappearance or detention, many which have been deemed arbitrary by United Nations experts, relate to these national security arguments. This is a worrisome trend that I have addressed publicly, including in my previous report, and, regrettably, it continues,” he added.
He also noted hate speech, cyber-bullying and smear campaigns online against representatives of civil society and national human rights institutions, public officials and members of political parties, and independent experts with UN mandates, as well as threats of rape, online smear campaigns, sexual assault in detention, and humiliating and degrading treatment of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.
“[T]hese incidents are absolutely unacceptable,” he said, challenging states to pledge to reject intimidation and reprisals.
“[W]e must all do more to protect and promote their fundamental right to engage with the United Nations,” he added.
In July, the UN Human Rights adopted a resolution seeking a comprehensive report on the human rights situation in the Philippines.
Voting 18 in favor, 14 against, and 15 abstentions, the UN body also called on the Philippine government to cooperate with the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council by facilitating country visits and preventing and refraining from all acts of intimidation or retaliation.
The resolution also urged the Philippine government to “take all necessary measures to prevent extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, to carry out impartial investigations and to hold perpetrators accountable in accordance with international norms and standards, including on due process and the rule of law.”