Shining a spotlight on one of the world’s dark corners:
the House of Lords Debate on the Human Rights Situation in the Philippines 24.01.19
By Nicole Piché, All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG)
The Philippines under President Duterte is at “war”: with the enactment of his flagship policy “the war on drugs”, at least 5,000 of its citizens – though human rights groups say it is more than 20,000 – have died in a killing spree by police, vigilantes, drug gang members and others.
Peers participating in the short debate in the House of Lords on 24 January on social and human rights issues in the Philippines, tabled by Lord Hylton, focused on the brutality and senselessness of this war – as well as raising other concerns.
As Lord Hylton highlighted, President Duterte has encouraged a shoot-to-kill policy by both police and vigilantes, with drug dealers and pushers shot on mere suspicion, without charge, trial or any process at all, while Baroness Anelay reminded us that Duterte has dismissed the dozens of children killed by police in the war on drugs as “collateral damage”.
Baroness Meacher argued that “the assumption in the Philippines that all one has to do is murder enough people and the trade in drugs will stop and shift to something else is simply wrong.” Addicts need treatment and rehabilitation, and to benefit from an evidence-based public health drug policy.
Lord Moynihan described how his half-niece was killed by multiple gunshot wounds, allegedly by off-duty Filipino policemen and left to die on a sidewalk in Manila with a scribbled handwritten sign hung around her neck reading “Pusher to the celebrities, you’re next”.
Attempts to re-introduce the death penalty, reduce the age of criminal responsibility and leave the International Criminal Court – further to its investigation of Duterte for crimes against humanity – were also flagged as deeply worrying in the current context.
Poverty, with the official poverty level at 20%, and extreme inequality have also given rise to all kinds of exploitation and abuse, with street children subjected to violence and forced into seriously overcrowded government facilities – as raised by Baroness Miller, and Filipino overseas workers facing dire human rights conditions in the Middle East and the possibility of unethical recruitment practices here – as raised by Lord Alton.
Filipinos criticising Duterte’s policies do so at their own peril. Lord Collins mentioned that the Supreme Court, acting on a petition by the Philippine Government, had ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for her criticism of the war on drugs and other policies, and that Duterte had urged the public to kill “useless bishops” in December. Lord Hylton highlighted the deaths and disappearance of journalists and human rights defenders, while Lord McConnell raised on-going attacks against the Rappler news website and its director Maria Ressa.
Lord Thomas of Gresford applauded the bravery of Senator Leila da Lima, former Secretary of Justice under President Benigno Aquino. Her forceful campaigning against the war on drugs has led to President Duterte publicly vowing to destroy her. Though she is now in prison while proceedings are on-going, she has not been silenced – and has been designated a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
There was a glimmer of hope, with some progress in bringing peace to Mindanao in the Southern Philippines, with Lord McConnell emphasising the need to focus on the stable establishment of devolved authority in the region, to follow through on recent referenda.
Responding for the Government, Baroness Goldie made clear the UK Government’s deep concern about the situation, and that it has made its concerns known to senior Filipino officials and maintains regular contact with human rights groups in the Philippines. But she stressed that it is the UK’s strong and wide-ranging bilateral relationship, including commercial ties, which allow it to raise concerns regularly, and at a high level.
Many are likely, however, to continue calling the UK Government out on a perceived lack of consistency in its messaging and engagement, with fears that trade objectives are being prioritised at the expense of tougher action on serious and systematic human rights abuses. Parliamentarians in particular, including many Peers who took part in this debate, will no doubt persist in urging the Government to do more – and to designate the Philippines as a priority human rights country in future annual FCO human rights reports.