Philippines at the Human Rights Council: Prospects for the New Administration

By Rosanna Ocampo, FORUM-ASIA

While the 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council was close to wrapping up in Switzerland on 30 June 2016, Mr. Rodrigo Duterte took his oath as Philippines’ 16th president. What does this mean for Philippines at the Human Rights Council?

From the beginning of the session, concerns were raised about human rights under the new leadership. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, during his update to the Council, reminded “the incoming President of Philippines that international law requires him to protect the rights of all his people, including journalists, civil society activists and human rights defenders who expose malfeasance ”

Prior to the session, the Special Rapporteurs on summary executions and freedom of opinion and expression, expressed concerns when Mr, Duterte held murdered journalists responsible for their own deaths. In response, he urged the rapporteurs to “go home and get some sleep.”

In his inauguration speech, the President asked Congress and the Commission on Human Rights to allow him to do his work. In the same speech, he reiterated that the country would continue to honor treaties and its international obligations. These conflicting ideas raise the questions of how Philippines, a member of the Human Rights Council until 2018, will respond to human rights issues.

Philippines has been responsive to issues affecting Filipino citizens at the Council. At the 32nd session, it took the lead on resolutions on protecting victims of trafficking and on human rights and climate change, and delivered statements to introduce these resolutions. As a country of concern, it spoke following the presentation of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons. It took pride of its accomplishments during the interactive dialogues with the Special Rapporteurs on freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association, and on the independence of judges and lawyers.

In spite of these, Philippines was passive on two crucial issues. During the general debate following the High Commissioner’s report on Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar, Philippines did not deliver a statement urging its ASEAN neighbor to take action. More crucially, it abstained on voting for a historic resolution to protect against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). While noting that it had supported similar resolutions in the past, Philippines was firm that it could not accept the appointment of an independent expert on this issue. The resolutions it previously supported would “not impose nor derogate the rights of states to formulate and define its own laws.” The creation of a mandate holder in this year’s resolution would compel countries to abide by certain standards.

Philippines’ stance on the Rohingya issue and the SOGI resolution highlights the importance the country gives to the idea of taking softer positions on country specific issues. Under the new administration, Philippines may only remain vocal in issues where it believes it can be aided by international cooperation, like climate change. It may not be proactive in taking action on country-specific situations and it cannot be expected to cooperate with human rights mechanisms where attention is drawn to restrictions on freedom of expression and the already increasing number of extrajudicial killings in the country.