ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Independent Philippines Human Rights Probe Launches New Investigations

Investigate PH was created in response to a U.N. decision not to launch an independent international probe into Philippines human rights abuses.

Nick Aspinwall
Independent Philippines Human Rights Probe Launches New Investigations
Credit: Facebook/Rody Duterte

A damning United Nations report on human rights violations in the Philippines wasn’t enough for the U.N. to launch an independent probe. So this week, a group of civil society organizations announced they will begin investigating the issue themselves.

Investigate PH, organized by the International Coalition of Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP), was formally launched this week and said it would release three reports to be submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The first two reports will be released for upcoming UNHRC sessions in March and July 2021.

The group will also submit findings to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Philippines withdrew from the ICC in 2019 after it filed complaints against President Rodrigo Duterte, who has since withdrawn the country from the court and threatened ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda with arrest should she enter the Philippines.

Under Duterte, human rights violations have become a blood sport, with almost no serious effort made by government officials or security forces to hide the thousands of extrajudicial killings linked to the country’s deadly drug war, or its “red-tagging” of political critics.

A June 2020 report by the office of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet indicated that the death toll of police and vigilante operations under Duterte could exceed 25,000. At the time, Bachelet said that the UNHRC “should consider options for international accountability measures.”

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The report also detailed concerns with the country’s anti-terrorism law, which has been widely seen as a tool to further crack down on political critics.

However, the UNHRC opted not to launch an independent probe of Philippine rights violations in October 2020. Instead, the council approved “technical assistance” to the Philippines in a resolution that “encouraged” the government to address the issues raised by Bachelet’s report.

The U.N.’s sidestep of a true international probe enraged domestic and international rights groups, along with other advocates who have called for more scrutiny of Duterte’s government.

“The gravity of the violations underlines why the world needs to know about these human rights abuses and to act and stop the crimes,” Investigate PH commissioner and former Australian Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon said during the group’s Tuesday launch.

“If we were Filipinos, we would surely have suffered under the Duterte government,” she said. “The evidence is overwhelming. The testimonies [are] tragic.”

Investigate PH consists of 10 prominent political and religious figures, including Rhiannon, who will serve as commissioners. Rev. Michael Blair, general secretary of the Untied Church of Canada’s General Council and another commissioner, called the group “a critical space of solidarity and accompaniment of the people of the Philippines as it investigates the blatant violation and violence related to the basic human rights of people.”

Human rights investigations in the Philippines have usually fallen to local groups who operate in extremely dangerous conditions to produce fact-finding reports. Members of these groups have in turn become victims of extrajudicial killings and have reported receiving frequent death threats.

The ICC said last month it sees “reasonable basis” that crimes against humanity have been committed during Duterte’s ongoing drug war, although it did not reveal whether it would launch an investigation.

The progress of rights investigations throughout Asia has varied sharply. In 2019, the ICC approved an investigation into Myanmar’s crimes committed toward the Rohingya people. But it also said last month it would not investigate China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims, angering rights activists.

The administration of President Joe Biden is set to explore officially declaring the atrocities committed toward Rohingya people as “genocide,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week during his confirmation hearing.

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The U.S. has been slow to condemn potential rights violations under Duterte. In October, a bill was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives that would suspend arms sales to the Philippines until the Duterte administration committed to human rights reforms. That bill remains pending.