PNP chief Ronald ‘Bato’ Dela Rosa and Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano
PNP chief Ronald ‘Bato’ Dela Rosa and Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano chat on the sidelines of the meeting with the families of the Special Action Force troopers who were killed Maguindanao. (Rene Lumawag/Presidential Photo)

The Philippine delegation to the third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) co-chaired by Senator Alan Peter Cayetano and deputy executive secretary for legal affairs Menardo Guevarra has a credibility problem. Its name is Rodrigo Duterte.

The UNHRC is looking into the Philippine human rights record during the last four years (2012-2016) of the Benigno Aquino administration and only the past nine months since the Duterte regime assumed office. But the inquiry is focused on the latter period, not because the Aquino human rights record and compliance with the Council’s past recommendations were exemplary (they were not), but because of the intensification of the Philippine human rights crisis during the few months in which the Duterte regime has been in power.

The Philippine human rights crisis has never really abated over the last 31 years despite the fall of the Marcos terror regime in 1986. It reached nearly the same stage of urgency as that period during the nine-year watch of Mrs.Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from 2001 to 2010, when over a thousand political activists, lawyers, students, reformist officials and even judges were killed extrajudicially, or abducted and forcibly disappeared in the course of the regime’s vicious anti-“insurgency” campaign.

The killing of 58 men and women including 32 journalists and media workers in Ampatuan town, Maguindanao province on November 23, 2009 contributed to the Arroyo regime’s putrid human rights record. There was some respite during the six years of Benigno Aquino III, but within weeks of its passing, the crisis reached distressing proportions as the Duterte regime implemented its brutal campaign against drug pushers and users.

The focus on the Duterte regime is evident in the statements of Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, who co-heads the delegation that will defend the Philippine record, and in most of the questions that have been submitted in advance by the governments of other countries.

Prior to his departure for Geneva, Switzerland where the review is being held, Mr. Cayetano trumpeted the country’s “achievements in upholding, promoting and protecting the human rights of every Filipino through a whole-of-government approach and in partnership with all stakeholders.”

That statement implied that the concern over human rights expressed by the United Nations, the European Union, and Philippine as well as foreign groups has no basis, and studiously avoided any reference to extrajudicial killings (EJKs), the restoration of the death penalty, the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years old and even nine, and such other police abuses as kidnapping, torture, and secret detention cells.

But the questions raised by several countries were precisely focused on those issues.

The United States asked if and how the Philippine government is investigating the killing of people during police anti-drug operations and what safeguards are in place to assure an independent investigation.

The United Kingdom asked the Philippine delegation how the government is protecting journalists as well as human rights defenders and the political opposition. (The Philippines has a 31-year history of journalists’ being killed for reporting and commenting on such public issues as corruption and criminality, in many instances by such State actors as police and military personnel and local officials.)

While that question refers mostly to problems the Duterte regime inherited from the Arroyo and Aquino administrations, the UK’s other questions are on whether the Duterte regime observes internationally mandated human rights standards in its anti-drug campaign, and on the proposal to lower the age of criminal liability.

The Philippine report to the UNHRC thus focused on these and related issues by alleging that the killing of drug offenders is not a State policy. Mr. Cayetano claimed that out of over 11,000 people killed since July last year, “only” 2,700 were killed while “fighting back” in the course of police anti-drug operations. The remaining 9,000 were victims of non-drug related homicide, with some cases solved while some are still under investigation.

The Philippine delegation’s defense, however did not seem convincing enough to the UN, whose High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR) has asked US President Donald Trump (!) to convey to President Rodrigo Duterte the Commission ‘s “alarm” over the human rights situation in the Philippines, while some 40 members of the UNHRC itself have asked for an investigation on the killings and the plan to restore the death penalty.

These responses to the Philippine report and delegation were virtually predictable for a number of reasons.

The first is the sheer number of those killed during police anti-drug operations. The government’s own statistics — 2,700 killed — is disturbing enough. That number of people killed during the last nine months is nearly equal to the 3,000 to 4,000 killed in Thailand’s three-year (2003-2006) anti-drug campaign during the term of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Surely the UN is aware of that number, and even of the similarity between the methods of the Thaksin regime and Duterte’s, which include empowering the police to raid the homes of suspected drug users and pushers without a warrant, putting in place a quota and rewards system for anyone who kills a drug pusher, and inducing drug users to surrender only for them to get killed later.

Equally certain is the UN’s awareness of President Duterte’s numerous public statements, which among others assured policemen of his “official and personal guarantee” of immunity from jail terms if they’re convicted of offenses committed during anti-drug operations. Mr. Duterte has also been quoted as saying that “my order to the police is to shoot to kill you (drug pushers).”

In several other statements Mr. Duterte has also dismissed UN and European Union expressions of concern over the Philippine human rights situation, insisted that the death penalty — by hanging is his preference — be restored despite such agreements as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) seeking its abolition to which the Philippines is a signatory. Mr. Duterte is also on record as publicly declaring that “I don’t care for human rights” and even dismissing those rights as “a shield for criminality.”

Did Mr. Duterte mean it when he made those statements? If he didn’t, why did he make them? If he did, do they not militate against anyone’s believing that his administration respects and protects human rights? Pity Mr. Cayetano and the rest of the Philippine delegation to the UPR. Like a smooth-talking used car salesman trying to get rid of a rust bucket, Mr. Cayetano and company had a serious credibility problem from the very beginning — and, deep in his cynical soul, he knows why.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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