In the coming weeks, 189 countries from around the world will elect 23 members to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW committee) for the 2021-2024 term. The Philippine government recently nominated a career diplomat, Rosario Manalo, for another term on the committee. If elected, she would serve her fourth term in this UN treaty body. She was its chairperson in 2005-2006.
The CEDAW committee plays an influential role, interpreting the widely ratified Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which affects governments’ obligations protecting women’s rights. It also receives and responds to individual complaints.
While the Philippine government hails Manalo as a champion of women’s rights, her recent record is one of undermining human rights and attacking rights groups – which disqualifies her from continuing in this capacity.
Manalo assisted the Duterte government’s disinformation campaign to avoid United Nations scrutiny of its abusive “war on drugs.” During the 41st session of the Human Rights Council in June 2019, Manalo sought to hijack the informal consultations on the resolution on the Philippines by berating Iceland for sponsoring the resolution, accusing that government of hypocrisy and of interfering in Philippine affairs.
She also lambasted widely respected non-governmental organizations, calling them “treacherous” for supporting the resolution. Her remarks were dangerous, considering that the Filipino organizations and human rights defenders advocating against the killings and other violations in the context of the “drug war” were already doing so at great personal risk.
Manalo has been inconsistent in supporting accountability for the mass sexual violence by the Myanmar military against Rohingya Muslim women and girls in Rakhine State. She was a member of the CEDAW committee that requested an exceptional report from Myanmar about the situation for women and girls. The committee found widespread and systematic acts of sexual violence, and issued strong recommendations on accountability to the Myanmar government.
Yet, when Manalo wore another hat, as the Myanmar government-appointed chair of the “International Commission of Enquiry” (ICOE) – a hybrid panel with highly compromised pro-government appointees from Myanmar – she made no apparent effort to pursue accountability for atrocities in Rakhine State. At the August 2018 news conference to announce the ICOE’s commissioners, Manalo went out of her way to assuage the Myanmar government, saying “There will be no blaming of anybody, no finger-pointing of anybody…saying you’re accountable.”
The International Commission of Enquiry proved to be a cover for the Myanmar government to whitewash military atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine State, and served as an excuse for the government to refuse to cooperate with international accountability mechanisms. In January 2020, Manalo presided over the release of the executive summary of the ICOE report to the Myanmar government. In a major failure of basic transparency, neither the ICOE nor the government have agreed to release the full text of the report. This conflicts with the CEDAW committee’s own call for the public release of measures related to the ICOE findings and recommendations.
Even worse were the executive summary’s conclusions, which found “no evidence of gang rape committed by Myanmar’s security forces.” This contradicted the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, which documented widespread use of sexual violence against Rohingya women. The CEDAW Committee acknowledged this, even if Manalo’s commission did not.
Manalo’s ICOE also failed to address the serious and well documented allegations of crimes against humanity, which entail a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population, found by UN investigators and international human rights organizations. Instead, ICOE said it found no evidence of genocidal intent to destroy the Rohingya. The commission provided no further information as to how it reached this conclusion, which seemed aimed at helping Myanmar repudiate allegations before the International Court of Justice that the government had violated the Genocide Convention.
Finally, while serving as the Philippines representative to the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights in 2012, Manalo supported the adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, a statement that undermines human rights standards, including those promoted by the CEDAW committee. Manalo then pitched the declaration’s ASEAN exceptionalism to international human rights standards at national and regional workshops, calling for the regional bloc to develop its own human rights conventions. Fortunately, bilateral donors ultimately rejected her ploy to further undermine international human rights standards.
Over the years, Manalo has accumulated a record that shows a profound lack of commitment to human rights. How else to characterize her actions to try to block international scrutiny of the Philippines government’s murderous drug campaign and put human rights defenders at risk; or to assist Myanmar cover up its widespread sexual violence against women and girls; or plotting to lower international standards by drafting regional human rights conventions to appease rights abusing governments in ASEAN?
The CEDAW committee should be comprised of human rights advocates who fight for women’s rights without fail, and promote transparency and accountability. Manalo is not that person. She should have no place on the CEDAW Committee. Instead, CEDAW member countries should cast their votes for candidates with strong and unimpeachable records who will bolster the committee’s ability and credibility to support and defend women’s rights around the world.