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Letter to President Aquino on the Philippines' Human Rights Commitments

President Benigno S. Aquino III
Manila, NCR

Re: UN Human Rights Council and the Philippines' human rights commitments

Dear President Aquino,

We would like to congratulate you on the Philippines' election to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Human Rights Watch looks forward to working with you at the council to further the human rights of people around the world.

In keeping with UN General Assembly resolution 60/251, which established the Human Rights Council, council members are to "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights" and "fully cooperate with the Council."

We are writing to urge you to take several important steps to live up to these standards and your pledges to promote justice and human rights protection, articulated during the presidential campaign, your inaugural address, and the voluntary commitments made by the Philippines in advance of the Human Rights Council elections.

Impunity for Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances
We were disappointed to see the absence of any commitment to end impunity for serious human rights violations by state security force in the Philippine's voluntary commitments for the HRC elections. Successive Philippine governments have failed to bring an end to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. While extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances have long been a problem in the Philippines, they have continued since you took office on June 30, 2010.

A damaging climate of impunity persists in the Philippines. Out of hundreds of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances since 2001, there have been only six successfully prosecuted cases resulting in the conviction of 11 people. Police investigations remain inadequate, with investigators frequently not visiting crime scenes and when they do visit, collecting only the most obvious evidence. Evidence of military involvement is routinely not pursued, investigations cease after the identification of one suspect, and arrest warrants frequently go unexecuted. Witnesses are not adequately protected.

The Philippines should immediately implement the comprehensive reforms needed to effectively investigate and prosecute these extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and other serious human rights violations. We urge you to:

  • Order the police and National Bureau of Investigation to vigorously pursue serious rights violations allegedly committed by military personnel; where cases are not properly investigated, pursue appropriate disciplinary measures for insubordination or criminal investigations for obstruction of justice or graft and corruption.
  • Order the inspector general and the provost marshal of the armed forces to investigate and publicly report on the involvement of military personnel in serious rights violations, and to identify failures within the armed forces investigative agencies to fully prosecute cases, including on the basis of command responsibility.
  • Broaden the Department of Justice's witness protection program to ensure that it is accessible, flexible, and properly funded. This program should provide protection for witnesses from the onset of a police investigation until after trial, as necessary.
  • Sign and ratify without delay the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

"Private Armies" and State-Backed Militias
The Philippine government has failed to seriously investigate atrocities by powerful ruling families, ban abusive militia forces, or curtail access of officials to military weaponry. In several provinces, ruling families continue to use paramilitary forces and local police as their private armies. Perhaps the starkest reminder of this problem is the 2009 massacre of 58 people in the Maguindanao province, allegedly by the local governing family, together with police, military, and paramilitary personnel.

We recognize that the Philippines continues to face genuine internal security threats. However, Philippine history shows that seeking to replace professional armed forces and police with armed and untrained or barely trained civilians is dangerous and counterproductive. We urge you to disable these abusive forces, systemically disarm them, and hold members and leaders accountable for serious abuses.

"Death squads"
"Death squads" operating in Davao City, General Santos City, Digos City, Tagum City, and Cebu City target mostly poor and marginalized victims, such as alleged petty criminals, drug dealers, gang members, and street children. More than 900 Davao City residents are believed to have fallen victim to the so-called Davao Death Squad over the last decade. Based on extensive interviews, Human Rights Watch has concluded that police officers and local government officials were involved or complicit in the decade-old killing spree that has plagued Davao City. The long-time mayor of Davao City-now the deputy mayor-Rodrigo Duterte has not condemned or attempted to prevent these killings. Rather, his public comments, portraying an image of being tough on crime at all costs, indicate his support for the Davao Death Squad.

Since April 2009, various government institutions have announced that they would investigate the death squads. While the National Commission on Human Rights has conducted public hearings and investigations on the issue, two years later there is still no report from this investigation.

We urge you to publicly denounce killings and local anti-crime campaigns that promote or encourage the unlawful use of force, and to rigorously and independently investigate and prosecute government officials and police officers who are found to be involved or complicit in such killings. The apparent involvement of local police in the Davao Death Squad makes them unsuitable for such an investigation. Instead, such an investigation requires the direct involvement of authorities at the national level, such as the police headquarters in Manila or the National Bureau of Investigation. Investigators should open channels of communication to receive information anonymously.

Sexual and Reproductive Rights
Last September you pledged to enhance access to all forms of family planning, including condoms. We welcome your support for sexual and reproductive rights and the right to the highest obtainable standard of health, and we encourage your government to undertake comprehensive action on a number of issues related to access to reproductive and sexual healthcare and information.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, over half of the pregnancies in the Philippines are unplanned. The institute estimated that in 2008, 570,000 women turned to illegal and unsafe abortion, 90,000 women suffered complications from the often crude and painful methods used, and 1,000 women died as a result. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, abortion-related complications are one of the top ten reasons for hospitalization of women in the Philippines.

As a first step in improving reproductive rights of all Filipinos, you should provide access to information on HIV prevention in all public schools and ensure accuracy, comprehensiveness, and proper implementation of curricula by trained and competent teachers and nongovernmental HIV/AIDS educators. As you know, restricted access to condoms continues to impede HIV/AIDS prevention efforts in the Philippines, where more than 90 percent of HIV transmission occurs through unsafe sexual contact. Moreover, the overall prevalence of HIV has increased sharply in recent years, particularly among the most at-risk populations.

Secondly, the Philippines' government should implement strategies aimed at reducing unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. These include ensuring universal access to condoms, other contraceptive supplies, and information, and securing adequate funding for a full range of contraception methods. The Philippines' government should take the required steps to lift bans on modern contraceptives, such as the Manila City Executive Order.

Migrant Workers' Rights
The Philippines has long been a leader in advocating for the protection of its migrant workers abroad. As your government pledged in its commitments to the Human Rights Council, you will "continue to be a voice for vulnerable groups, especially migrants and children, and support human rights-based approaches that address their concerns in a comprehensive, positive and practical way." Still, rampant abuse against migrant workers continues, and the government should take stronger action to prevent and respond to such abuse. Human Rights Watch welcomes the 2010 amendments to the Migrant Workers' Act that include requirements for the Philippines to evaluate countries' legal and protection frameworks in order to certify them as eligible destinations for Filipino overseas workers.

For such measures to be effective in a competitive global economy, the Philippines should be strengthening its cooperation with other labor-sending countries in order to better negotiate minimum human rights protections for migrant workers in destinations such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia. Otherwise, as the Philippines demands stronger protections for its workers, destination countries are turning to other labor-sending countries with weaker requirements; for example Saudi Arabia's 2011 halt of recruitment of Filipina domestic workers and initiation of recruitment from Bangladesh. The Philippines should now take a leadership role not only in modeling national-level protections for migrant workers, but in strengthening regional collaboration to establish minimum standards that can mitigate a "race to the bottom" and increase pressure for receiving states to improve protections.

The government should also commit to protecting the rights of domestic workers at both home and abroad, including through finalizing and adopting the Domestic Workers' Bill. The Philippines has an important role in chairing the final negotiations for the new International Labour Organization Convention and Recommendation on Decent Work for Domestic Workers at the International Labour Conference in June 2011. The Philippines should demonstrate its leadership and support for these important new global labor standards by ratifying this instrument once it is finalized.

Pending Requests from Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council
The Philippines currently has pending requests from 13 special procedures of the Human Rights Council for country visits, including from the special rapporteur on human rights defenders (requested in 2008), and the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (requested in 2006 and again in 2008). Members of the UN Human Rights Council "shall fully cooperate with the Council" according to GA resolution 60/251. On that basis, we call for you to immediately extend invitations for visits to those on the "waiting list" and arrange to complete all 13 visits by 2014.

As a member of the Human Rights Council, the Philippines should issue a standing invitation to visit to all UN special procedures mandate holders, including special rapporteurs, independent experts, and working groups.

We look forward to the Philippines fulfilling the voluntary commitments that the government articulated ahead of the council election. To uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights and realize your election promises of rights protection and justice, however, these additional steps are needed.


Elaine Pearson
Deputy Director, Asia Division                                 

Juliette de Rivero
Geneva Director

H.E. Mr. Libran N. Cabactulan, Permanent Representative of the Philippines to the United Nations
H.E. Mr. Evan P. Garcia, Permanent Representative of the Philippines to the United Nations and Other Organizations in Geneva

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