“DARKER and more dangerous.”
That was how United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein labelled the human rights situation in the Philippines and 39 other countries before the 36th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland early this week.
The UNHRC, an inter-governmental body that consists of 47 member-states, is responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights worldwide.
In his opening statement, Zeid criticised the “appalling” human rights condition in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, a pronouncement that irked Foreign Affairs Secretary Allan Peter Cayetano, a key subordinate of the firebrand leader.
“In the Philippines, I continue to be gravely concerned by the President’s open support for a shoot-to-kill policy regarding suspects,” said the UN human rights chief, referring to the deadly war on drugs ordered by Duterte since he assumed the presidency in June 2016.
Zeid told the council that there’s an “apparent absence of credible investigations into reports of thousands of extrajudicial killings (EJKs) and the failure to prosecute any perpetrator” in the government’s war on drugs.
He cited the killing of 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos, who was killed by policemen conducting an anti-drug raid in Caloocan City in Metro Manila on August 16. CCTV footage showed that Delos Santos was captured alive by two policemen in civilian clothes moments before he was found dead with gunshot wounds.
The National Bureau of Investigation has charged the policemen with murder for killing the teenager. The policemen maintain that Delos Santos fired a gun at the raiding team.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II described as “an isolated case” the killing of Delos Santos, which triggered a public outcry across the country including leaders of the Catholic Church. Thousands of people had joined protests seeking justice for his death as well as marched with the hearse to lay the victim to his final resting place.
According to non-profit Children’s Legal Rights and Development Centre, delos Santos was the 54th minor killed in Duterte’s war on drugs since last year.
“Kian’s case was not an isolated case; he was the 54th minor killed in the war on drugs,” the group said.
Two days after delos Santos’ funeral, the President again told police they would not be punished for killing suspects who resist arrest, Zeid said.
The UN human rights chief also noted that EJKs in the Philippines have “become so widespread” as a result of the deadly campaign to eliminate drugs in the country.
Human Rights Watch has said that Duterte’s war on drugs so far claimed the lives of over 7,000 drug personalities, mostly from poor communities.
Zeid was not the only UN official who criticised the deadly war on drugs in the Philippines. Earlier, UN special rapporteur on EJKs Agnes Callamard also slammed Duterte for the bloody campaign to eliminate illegal drugs in the country.
“His (Duterte) order to police to shoot any human rights workers who ‘are part of’ the drug trade or who ‘obstruct justice’ is yet another blow to his country’s reputation and his people’s rights,” Zeid said.
During his speech early this week before UNHRC members, Zeid said he was also shocked by President Duterte’s threat to bomb schools for indigenous children in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
Duterte said these schools were allegedly teaching children to rebel against the government. The President later clarified he will not harm the indigenous children and that only their schools will be destroyed for teaching subversive ideas.
The UN human rights chief also raised concern over the case of jailed Senator Leila de Lima, a fierce critic of Duterte. In March 2017, the European Parliament approved a resolution urging the release of the opposition senator, who was detained on drug-related charges.
Zeid also hit moves to restore the death penalty, particularly for drug offenses, as another “step back” for the Philippines.
The UN human rights boss’ criticisms on the human rights condition in the Philippines have irked top Filipino government officials, including Foreign Affairs Secretary Cayetano.
Cayetano, who ran but lost as Duterte’s vice president in the 2016 elections, blasted Zeid for “having severely mischaracterised” the situation in the Philippines in his report to the human rights council.
“His (Zeid) report on the conduct of anti-drug operations was deliberate misinformation,” he said in a statement.
The official noted the Philippines has provided the UNHRC “with all the facts” regarding the campaign against illegal drugs during its report to the Third Cycle of the Universal Periodic Review [UPR] in May 2017.
“The commissioner’s report would have been balanced and accurate had he considered the information that we provided, instead of just relying on uncorroborated information,” the secretary said.
Cayetano issued the pronouncement even as he reiterated the commitment of the Philippines to continue constructively engaging the UN Human Rights Council.
“The Philippines has actively participated in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, and was one of the first countries to undergo the review in 2008, having championed the establishment of the UPR process under the UN Human Rights Council Mechanism,” Cayetano stated.
According to Cayetano, the report he provided during the UPR Periodic Review emphasised Duterte’s directive “to fight the drug problem by all means that the law allows.”
“The anti-illegal drug campaign should follow approved protocols to ensure the protection of human rights, and that any erring law enforcement agent would be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law,.” said Cayetano, who led the Philippine delegation to the Third Cycle of the UPR in Geneva and presented the country report.
In Geneva, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Philippines to the United Nations Maria Teresa Almojuela, responding to Zeid’s allegations, said “the practice of making highly-biased and sweeping generalisations, without due consideration of the facts on the ground, has no place in the Human Rights Council.”
“Like any country, the Philippines cannot and does not assert that it manages the challenges to human rights in a perfect manner, but the Philippine government, more than any party here, seeks justice and dignity for all Filipino people,” she said in a statement.
Almojuela underscored that the Philippines “is a democratic country that strongly adheres to the rule of law, with well-established and institutionalised human rights, policies and programmes.”
“The Philippine Government investigates and prosecutes all credible allegations of human rights violations, including those perpetrated allegedly by state security forces,” Almojuela said in her statement at the 36th Human Rights Council General Debate.
“The UPR has shown our openness to constructive dialogue to continue to enhance and strengthen the protection and promotion of human rights in the country,” she added.
The UPR is a state-led process, which seeks to promote cooperation among UN member-states in further enhancing their respective national human rights policies and practices.