Last year, European Union member states at the United Nations Human Rights Council voted decisively in support of a resolution mandating the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to report on grave rights abuses in the Philippines.
The report, presented in June, documented “widespread and systematic” extrajudicial killings, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths, crimes committed in a climate of near total impunity; the murder of at least 208 human rights defenders between 2015 and 2019, and frequent threats and intimidation, police raids, arbitrary arrests, prosecutions, and shutdowns of civil society groups and media outlets.
The findings were unsurprising, confirming what has been previously documented by rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, and UN special experts. What has been surprising is the Human Rights Council’s reluctance to act on repeated calls for an independent international investigation into the extrajudicial killings and other abuses committed since 2016.
In a letter sent on August 27, 62 nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, reiterated their call for an independent international investigative mechanism on crimes committed in the Philippines. The groups also cautioned against giving credence to Manila’s recent creation of a panel to review more than 5,600 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings in the country, as the panel includes the very agencies implicated in the abuses.
While the EU has repeatedly expressed concerns over serious abuses by President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, it has not taken concrete action beyond the June 2019 vote. The Philippines benefit from the EU’s GSP+ scheme, which grants preferential access to the EU market conditional on the ratification and implementation of 27 international human rights, labor, and environmental treaties. Despite noting major backsliding in the country’s human rights record, the EU has so far refused to trigger the mechanisms that could lead to the suspension of the trade benefits.
The EU’s and member states’ support at the Human Rights Council will be necessary to advance prospects for justice in the Philippines. Setting up the mechanism would increase pressure on the Duterte administration to stop the abuses and cooperate meaningfully with the international community. And if the Philippine government fails to do so, it could eventually lead to the Philippines having its EU trade benefits suspended, as Cambodia’s abusive prime minister, Hun Sen, knows very well.