At the 51st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will present its report on the human rights situation in the Philippines. This Human Rights Watch briefing paper provides an update on the human rights situation in the Philippines and an assessment of the progress of the OHCHR capacity-building program established by the HRC in Resolution 45/33. It also sets out our recommendations for action from the HRC, in particular the adoption of a resolution that continues international scrutiny and reporting on human rights in the Philippines.
OHCHR capacity-building program
The Human Rights Council, at the conclusion of its 45th session in 2020, passed a resolution mandating “technical cooperation and capacity-building for the promotion and protection of human rights” in the Philippines. With an initial budget of US$10 million, the UN Joint Program, designated to implement that capacity-building mandate, together with different agencies of the Philippine government, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and civil society organizations, started on August 1, 2021, and will end on July 31, 2024. The program’s focus is on six key areas: (1) strengthening domestic investigative and accountability mechanisms; (2) improved data gathering on alleged police violations; (3) civic space and engagement with civil society and the Philippine Commission on Human Rights; (4) strengthening the National Mechanism for Reporting and Follow-up; (5) human rights-based approach to drug control; and (6) human rights-based approach to counterterrorism. Each of these areas are to be covered by a respective technical working group.
The UN Joint Program was the HRC’s response to the growing international clamor to stop the violations of human rights linked to the “war on drugs” in the Philippines, which has resulted in the death of thousands of people since it was announced and operationalized by the then-government of President Rodrigo Duterte in July 2016, and to ensure those who committed abuses were held to account.
More than a year after it began, the program is still grappling with organizational and administrative issues, from the most basic – such as scheduling meetings with the government agencies – to the more problematic ones, like a pushback from government offices against the participation of civil society organizations. The latter is crucial because it indicates the Philippine government’s lack of willingness to cooperate with independent civil society organizations (CSOs), which are a key component of the program. Human Rights Watch found that the government has rejected the participation of CSOs that it deems critical of the government and the human rights situation. As a result, only four of the six technical working groups (TWG) have been convened. Except for one TWG, the others have very limited CSO participation. Human Rights Watch was also told about the failure by law enforcement agencies to provide needed and relevant information on “drug war” cases as part of the improved data-gathering component of the program.
While Human Rights Watch and many other human rights organizations continue to have reservations about the UN Joint Program -- mainly because it does not seek to answer or solve the immediate problem, which is the continued “drug war” killings – the program’s objective to institutionalize human rights in law enforcement and other aspects of Philippines governance can be a positive development if structures are put in place that function beyond the mid-2024 end date of the program.
Recommendations for the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council:
- HRC member-states should recognize that the human rights crisis in the Philippines persists and support a resolution during the 51st session to continue the OHCHR capacity-building program and request continued reporting by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
- The resolution should call upon the Philippine government to:
- Announce in unequivocal terms the end of the “drug war” and prioritize accountability for unlawful killings and other abuses.
- Form a “truth commission” that will gather testimonies of witnesses and victims and their families and make recommendations about justice and reparations.
- Stop the practice of “red-tagging” activists and critics of the government.
- Stop harassing journalists and activists with threats of arrests or criminal libel cases.
- Drop all charges against former Senator Leila de Lima and immediately release her from police detention.
- Appoint new members of the Commission on Human Rights who are independent of government and have demonstrated expertise in human rights and ensure that the process of their selection is transparent and inclusive, with the active participation of human rights groups and other CSOs.
- The resolution should call on the Philippine government to facilitate the participation of CSOs in the UN Joint Program.
“Drug War” Killings Continue
Even while the international community – particularly the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court – has taken notice of the human rights atrocities in the Philippines related to former President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” the abuses continue. According to official government figures, members of the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency killed 6,252 individuals during anti-drug operations from July 1, 2016 to May 31, 2022.
The same government data indicates that 71 individuals were killed by the police during drug raids since the UN Joint Program was launched in August 2021.
The official death tolls do not include the deaths of those killed by unidentified gunmen whom Human Rights Watch and other rights monitors have credible evidence to believe operate in cooperation with local police and officials. The OHCHR calculated in its report to the UN Human Rights Council that the death toll was at least 8,663. Domestic human rights groups and the government appointed Philippines Commission on Human Rights state that the real figure of “drug war” killings is possibly triple the number reported in the OHCHR report.
Monitoring by Dahas, a program run by the Third World Studies Center of the University of the Philippines (with support from Belgium’s Ghent University and the University of Antwerp), concluded that drug-related killings in 2022 through August 31 have totaled 221. Of that number, almost a third – 72 – were committed in the first two months of the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., which began on July 1, 2022. President Marcos has failed to order a stop or suspension of the “drug war” and his top police officials vowed to continue waging it.
Very few “drug war” killings have been seriously investigated by the authorities. Only a handful of cases – 12 out of thousands – are in varying stages of investigation by police or active review by prosecutors. Only one case, the video-recorded murder of 17-year-old student Kian delos Santos in August 2017, has resulted in the conviction of police officers.
The Department of Justice previously provided misleading information to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by claiming that the department was conducting a serious, independent review of 52 cases involving the police. But the ICC prosecutor, in seeking to continue the court’s investigation of the killings, determined that the Department of Justice review was insufficient and failed to satisfy the requirements to defer the ICC investigation.
Political Killings and Threats, Harassment
Leftist activists and human rights defenders have long been the target of extrajudicial killings by security forces in the Philippines.
One particularly horrific recent case was the so-called “Bloody Sunday” killings in March 2021 when nine activists and unionists were killed in a series of raids by the police. Thirty-four police officers were implicated in the violence but none were brought to justice.
On August 17, 2020, unidentified gunmen shot dead Zara Alvarez, a legal worker for the human rights group Karapatan, in Bacolod City in the central Philippines. Alvarez was the 13th Karapatan member killed during the Duterte administration. Alvarez’s killing came a week after peasant leader Randall Echanis was found dead, after apparently being tortured in his home in Quezon City.
These attacks against activists occurred in the context of the government’s armed conflict with the communist New People’s Army insurgency. Government and military officials have accused civil society groups of being supporters of the insurgents. Such accusations are part of what is known in the Philippines as a “red-tagging” campaign, and these actions put the accused at heightened risk of attack. The military, national security agencies, and the police have actively used social media to convey “red tagging” threats, and in a number of cases, those red-tagged persons were subsequently killed by unknown gunmen.
The government’s National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, which is working closely with the military, police, and the president’s office, has accused numerous political activists of being members of the Communist Party of the Philippines or the New People’s Army. Among those red-tagged by the task force is former Vice President Leni Robredo, who lost to Marcos in the recent presidential election. The task force has also red-tagged journalists, book publishers, and nongovernmental groups, including Oxfam.
Red-tagged individuals such as leaders and lawyers of peasant organizations and human rights groups have been physically harmed by government security forces and vigilantes; many have been killed. Others were harassed, such as a group of nuns and peasant women whose bank accounts were frozen.
Attacks Against Journalists
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, the CEO of the news website Rappler, was convicted of cyber-libel and faces several other legal cases filed by the government that appear intended on shutting down the news outlet. The cases against Ressa and Rappler are part of the government’s campaign of retaliation against media organizations for their critical reporting on “drug war” killings and other human rights abuses committed by the Duterte administration. Since 2016, President Duterte and his supporters on social media have subject Ressa and Rappler to threats and harassment, including misogynistic attacks online.
The Philippine cyber-libel law, passed in 2012, has been used several times against journalists, columnists, critics of the government, and ordinary social media users. The Office of Cybercrime at the Department of Justice reported that 3,700 cyber-libel cases were filed as of May 2022. Of that number, 1,317 were filed in court while 1,131 were dismissed. Twelve cases ended in a conviction.
Aside from facing criminal libel cases, journalists in the Philippines continue to face deadly attacks, with at least two of them murdered so far in 2022, according to UNESCO. The government has likewise sought to silence journalists by shutting down their websites, such as in the case of Bulatlat and Pinoy Weekly, two publications in the so-called alternative press.
In July 2020, the Philippines Congress, in which Duterte’s ruling coalition controlled a large majority, voted not to extend the franchise of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest television network. The vote led to the shutdown of ABS-CBN across the country. ABS-CBN earned the ire of Duterte, who accused the network, which often criticized the “war on drugs,” of bias against him.
Arbitrary Detention of Leila de Lima
Former senator Leila de Lima, one of the foremost critics of ex-president Duterte, remains in police detention since her arrest on trumped-up drug charges in 2017 even though two key witnesses in the Philippine government’s case against her have retracted their testimonies. De Lima, 62, faces charges alleging without evidence that she received money from drug lords while serving as justice secretary. Human Rights Watch believes the Duterte administration was retaliating against her for investigating extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.
Rafael Ragos, a former officer-in-charge of the Bureau of Corrections in 2012, in his sworn affidavit dated April 30, 2022, recanted earlier testimony he had given to the court in which he alleged that he delivered money to de Lima from drug lords. Ragos said his testimony was false and coerced “upon the instructions of Secretary Aguirre,” referring to Duterte’s justice secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre. In exchange for his false testimony, Ragos said he was dropped as a respondent in the same case and turned into a witness.
A few days before Ragos’s retraction, on April 28, Kerwin Espinosa, a self-confessed “drug lord,” also withdrew his testimony made before senators in November 2016 implicating de Lima in illegal drugs. “Any statement he made against the Senator are false and was the result only of pressure, coercion, intimidation, and serious threats to his life and family members from the police who instructed him to implicate the Senator into the illegal drug trade,” Espinosa’s affidavit reads. Espinosa’s testimony is not part of the current cases against de Lima.
Failure to Convene New Commission on Human Rights
More than two months into his term, President Marcos has not named the new members of the Commission on Human Rights, which is constitutionally mandated to investigate and help prosecute human rights violations. Human Rights Watch has called on Marcos to urgently convene the new commission. The terms of the chair and other four commissioners all expired in the last months of the Duterte administration, but President Duterte was barred from filling the slots in line with provisions of the Philippine Constitution.
President Marcos should ensure that the new chair and commissioners are independent and impartial, and have extensive proven expertise in human rights. He should also ensure the selection process is transparent and inclusive, involving consultations with representative members of Philippines human rights groups and other CSOs.
The widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detentions, and enforced disappearances during the martial law period from 1972 to 1986 gave impetus for the creation of the Commission on Human Rights following the ouster of President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. in the “People Power” uprising in 1986. Only a few human rights cases from that period have been the subject of meaningful accountability measures from the government, and to date, many victims and their families from that period are still awaiting justice and compensation.