By Gaea Katreena Cabico, September 14, 2022; PhilStar Global

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines has made progress in seeking accountability for rights abuses but victims seeking justice still face challenges, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said as it urged the government to implement rights-based solutions and to end threatening rhetoric against rights defenders.

In a report released Tuesday, the UN rights office noted the government took some initiatives to advance accountability for human rights violations. It, however, stressed that “access to justice for victims of human rights violations and abuses remained very limited.”

The report said that institutional and structural shortcomings like limited oversight of human rights investigations and a lack of investigation capacity and of inter-agency cooperation have yet to be addressed. The UN rights office also noted limited forensic capacity and protracted judicial processes as hindrances to seeking justice for abuses.

“Inadequate victims and witness support and protection and fear of reprisal also impacted victims’ engagement,” the UN rights office said.

Inter-agency review panel

It added that while the government took steps to investigate some killings in the context of the government’s war on drugs through the establishment of an inter-agency review panel, these have so far not resulted in convictions and redress for victims.

Government data showed that 6,252 people were killed in anti-drug operations under the brutal campaign started by former president Rodrigo Duterte. But human rights groups estimate the the number of deaths could be several times higher.

To address the concerns, the report recommends that the government conduct prompt, impartial and transparent investigation into all killings and human rights violations, and accelerate the work of the inter-agency review panel.

It also urged the government to revise legislation and policies in line with a human rights-based approach, and strengthen health-centered, human rights and evidence-based prevention, treatment and rehabilitation approaches to drug control.

The report was mandated by a UN Human Rights Council resolution that offered technical assistance and capacity building to improve the human rights situation in the Philippines. The text stopped short of ordering an independent, on-the-ground probe that rights groups were calling for at the time.

‘End divisive rhetoric’

The UN rights office said it continued to receive reports of killings, arbitrary detention, and physical and legal intimidation against human and environmental defenders, journalists, lawyers, labor activists and humanitarian workers.

“They are often targets of ‘red-tagging”’ a tactic deployed to accuse individuals of fronting for the [Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army]. This continued to put human rights defenders at risk, hampering legitimate human rights activities while eroding trust between the Government and civil society actors,” the report read.

The UN rights office called on the government to ensure the continued independence of the Commission on Human Rights, prevent and respond to human rights violations against human rights defenders, and end incitement to violence and threatening rhetoric against critics of the government.

It also urged Philippine authorities to enact and implement the proposed new legislation protecting human rights defenders, and drop charges and other sanctions targeting the legitimate work of human rights defenders.

The high commissioner also urged the government to continue the cooperation with the UN system in the implementation of the UN Joint Program on human rights, and the UN Human Rights Council to continue monitoring the human rights situation in the Philippines closely, including progress on accountability.

The 47-member council is holding its 51st session from September 12 to October 7 in Geneva, Switzerland.

In a policy paper sent to UN member states, Human Rights Watch said the council should adopt a strong resolution addressing the situation in the Philippines, where it said there is a human rights crisis.