Families of victims of the "war on drugs" in the Philippines remove portraits of their slain relatives after the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution to investigate the killings. 

© 2019 Bullit Marquez/AP Photo

What we witnessed at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council earlier this month was inspiring and critically important. We saw Iceland’s principled leadership in action, bringing about  the adoption of a resolution putting the human rights situation in the Philippines on the UN agenda. Thousands of people have been summarily executed in the Philippines in the context of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” and  human rights defenders and government critics there face threats and intimidation.

To us, as advocates working at the Council, and especially to the Filipino human rights defenders in the room, this meant a world of a difference. It was a decisive shift from near-total impunity for the heinous crimes committed against thousands of people by the government of President Rodrigo Duterte to the beginning of accountability. Many broke into tears at this glimpse of hope and justice.

The resolution, adopted with cross-regional support, is modest in scope, simply requesting a report by the UN human rights office on the situation in the Philippines. UN experts and our organizations had called for a full-fledged investigation, but we see the resolution as a crucial step toward tackling the human rights crisis that has claimed the lives of so many people in the Philippines.

The widespread killings in the Philippines do not happen by accident, but in pursuit of a state policy articulated at the highest levels. President Duterte himself has repeatedly urged  killing people associated with drugs, saying: “My order is to shoot to kill you. I don’t care about human rights, you better believe me,” and vowed to protect the police and others who kill from facing justice.

Credible estimates by  independent organizations and the Philippines national Commission on Human Rights place the death toll from the “drug war” at more than 27,000. Even the police admit to more than 6,600 killings with their direct involvement, attempting to justify the killings on the grounds that all these suspects “fought back.” But reporting from human rights groups and the media belies these claims, finding instead that  police routinely plant evidence such as guns and drugs on victims’ bodies to justify the killings and that the police are also often complicit in killings by unidentified armed people.

The resolution responding to these violations didn’t come out of the blue. Iceland had already led three joint statements on the Philippines supported by nearly 40 States in 2017 and 2018, the last of which indicated that formal Council action could be forthcoming if the Philippines didn’t reverse course. Both the former and current top UN human rights officials had also sounded the alarm, and the International Criminal Court announced a preliminary investigation in February 2018. The Philippines had ample time to stop the killings and investigate the violations. But it did not.

Instead, bodies continued to pile up in urban areas of Manila and elsewhere in the country. Children from the poorest communities continued to be orphaned as their breadwinners were killed. Critics of the government’s policies continued to be vilified and harassed. And there were no prosecutions except a single high-profile case captured on video, of the police killing a helpless teenager. The killings continue on a daily basis, and President Duterte has promised that his drug war will only get harsher. Even while the Human Rights Council was in session and the Iceland-led resolution on the table, the police shot and killed Myka – a 3-year-old girl – during a drug raid at her family’s home near Manila.

Meanwhile, the Philippines pulled out all the stops in a massive misinformation campaign and targeted outreach to states the world over to try to block the resolution. The magnitude and hostility of the Philippines’ efforts were shocking – even to those of us who have followed the processes to secure Council action on human rights violations committed by more powerful States – but there was nothing new about it. While the Philippines has tried to portray itself as a cooperative member of the Human Rights Council, it has smeared the UN experts who called for an investigation as “intellectually challenged” and as representing “enemies of the state.” The Philippine government placed the UN expert on indigenous peoples on a terrorist watch list after she criticized the government, and President Duterte himself threatened to slap the UN expert on extra-judicial executions if she probed the drug war.

It’s also not surprising that supporters of the Philippine government have criticized Iceland for “interference in its sovereignty” – it’s a common tune from states responsible for  human rights violations that attempt to shield themselves and each other from scrutiny. But while Iceland’s leadership was bold and effective in bringing attention to the plight of victims, even in the face of the Philippines’ aggressive counter-campaign, there was nothing irregular about their choice to address the human rights situation in the country. This is what’s expected of members of the world’s top human rights body, many of whom lead on  resolutions concerning rights violations in other countries.

The sheer volume of killings in the Philippines, their incitement by the president, the absence of accountability, and hostility against the UN human rights mechanisms, made the situation in the Philippines cry out  for attention, and the resolution was long overdue. Iceland courageously took it on.

Around the world, there are many abusive governments committing rights violations, but only a handful of champions willing to hold them to account. Iceland appears to be taking its responsibility as a member of the Human Rights Council – and the human rights situation in the Philippines – seriously. Other countries would do well do follow suit.