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Families of victims of extrajudicial killings in the "war on drugs" display portraits of their slain relatives and call on the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the killings, in Quezon City, Philippines, July 9, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council dealt victims of human rights violations in the Philippines a serious blow by failing to pass a resolution that would ensure continued scrutiny of the country’s rights situation, Human Rights Watch said today. The council will end its 51st Session in Geneva on October 7, 2022, without taking action on the Philippines, despite dire expressions of concern from the UN human rights office, civil society organizations, and families of victims of abuses.

The 2020 Human Rights Council resolution on the Philippines required the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor and report on the Philippines rights situation through 2022. A September report by the high commissioner’s office highlighted prevailing rights violations and recommended continued monitoring and reporting to the council. However, the council member states and donor countries that supported the 2020 resolution and the ensuing Philippine-UN Joint Program did not press for a 2022 resolution.

“The UN Human Rights Council’s failure to act on the Philippines is devastating for both the victims of human rights abuses and civil society groups that seek to uphold basic rights,” said Lucy McKernan, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “The end to council scrutiny of the Philippines reflects especially poorly on the European and other concerned governments, led by Iceland, that had banded together in 2020 to support a resolution and the UN Joint Program that sought real improvements on the ground.”

The UN Joint Program was designed to institutionalize human rights reforms in the Philippines in the face of catastrophic rights abuses during the “war on drugs” started by then-President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. Instead of creating a commission of inquiry to investigate the thousands of extrajudicial killings, the Human Rights Council in 2020 settled on providing the Philippines “technical cooperation” and “capacity building” that, while valuable, did not advance accountability for grave crimes.

The three-year program has not gotten beyond its preliminary phase, facing unnecessary obstacles from the Philippine government, including attempts to undermine civil society participation. Without a commitment to the program from the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and the political backing offered by a Human Rights Council resolution, the UN Joint Program is unlikely to make much progress, Human Rights Watch said.

Since Marcos took office on June 30, there has been no letup in “drug war” killings or other human rights violations. Ninety drug-related deaths have been reported by the Third World Studies Center of the University of the Philippines during the new administration, including 41 since Marcos’ press secretary said on August 11 that the “drug war” would continue. On October 3, unidentified gunmen killed a radio journalist, Percival Mabasa, in Las Pinas City, in Metro Manila. He was the second journalist killed since Marcos became president.

Harassment and attacks against activists, human rights defenders, and journalists have continued. The Marcos administration is using the country’s anti-terrorism laws to file bogus rebellion charges against activists. The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, which is under the Office of the President, continued to engage in “red-tagging,” baselessly accusing people of supporting the communist insurgency, putting them at grave risk.

Former Senator Leila de Lima, the chief critic of Duterte’s “war on drugs” remains in custody, where she has spent more than six years on fabricated charges, even though witnesses against her have recanted their testimony. Journalists such as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa still face legal cases and possible imprisonment for their reporting.

In June, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) requested authorization from the court’s judges to resume an investigation into possible crimes against humanity committed in the context of Duterte’s “drug war.” In November 2021, the Philippine government had requested a deferral of the ICC’s probe under the principle of complementarity, claiming that it had begun its own investigations into cases of extrajudicial killings attributed to the police during “drug war” operations. The ICC prosecutor’s office determined that the Philippine government failed to demonstrate it was taking steps to investigate several of the killings and hold perpetrators to account; it is now awaiting judicial review of its request to move forward with the investigation.

“Families of victims had high hopes that the Human Rights Council would continue its scrutiny of rights abuses in the Philippines, but the council let them down,” said McKernan. “The human rights situation in the Philippines remains dire, but as the council drops the Philippines from its agenda, justice and accountability remain as elusive as ever.”

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