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UN report: 'Heavy-handed' security approach led to 'serious' human rights violations in Philippines

The Duterte administration's "heavy-handed" focus on both "real and inflated" threats to national security has led to "serious" human rights violations in the Philippines, the United Nations' human rights chief said Thursday.

In a report authorized by the UN Human Rights Council, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet also said "harmful rhetoric" from high-level officials, including President Rodrigo Duterte, have been "pervasive and deeply damaging," some rising to the level of "incitement to violence."

"The long-standing overemphasis on public order and national security at the expense of human rights has become more acute in recent years, and there are concerns that the vilification of dissent is being increasingly institutionalized and normalized in ways that will be very difficult to reverse," the report states.

The report is based on 893 written submissions, "substantial written input" from the Philippine government, official data, and documents including legislation, policy guidelines, court records, police reports, videos, photos, open source reports, as well as interviews with victims and witnesses.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also had "several exchanges" with government representatives, including "detailed discussions" last February in Bangkok, Thailand, but was not allowed to visit the Philippines.

The report will be presented at the Human Rights Council's 44th session this year.

In July 2019, the UNHRC voted to set up an investigation into thousands of killings in President Duterte's so-called 'war on drugs.'

Bachelet's 26-page report discusses violations to human rights allegedly committed in the government's anti-illegal drug campaign and in counterterrorism and anti-communist armed conflict efforts. It also touches on the situation of indigenous peoples, farmers, and the thousands of Filipinos who continue to be internally displaced.

A large part of the report examines the Duterte administration's war on drugs, raising concerns starting from Tokhang -- house visitations that do not require warrants -- all the way to possibly arbitrary detentions and allegations of "widespread and systematic extrajudicial killings" that have been met with "near impunity."

The report says the Philippine National Police has launched thousands of investigations on deaths during police operations but says the government has cited only one case -- the killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos -- in which police officers were convicted of a drug campaign-related killing.

It adds that submissions suggest "widespread impunity" for drug-related killings committed by masked perpetrators, who allegedly displayed a "disturbing familiarity" with their targets, "suggesting possible collusion with police and local government officials in some cases."

The report further notes that the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002 requires mandatory drug rehabilitation for first-time drug users, which it said violates the principle of voluntary treatment. Mandatory drug testing and reporting of drug users, on the other hand, may breach privacy rights, create stigma, and amount to "degrading treatment," the report states.

Beyond the drug war, the Bachelet report also says several Philippine laws give the authorities "wide discretion" to detain and charge persons on national security grounds "without adequate human rights safeguards," citing the Human Security Act, the anti-cybercrime law, the subpoena powers law, and laws on sedition, even going on to warn about the proposed anti-terrorism law.

It also states there are concerns in the administration going after suspected communist sympathizers, showing patterns that it says resemble those in the anti-drug campaign: "a presumption of guilt and lack of due process or effective oversight."

It also discusses "red-tagging," or labelling individuals and groups as communists or fronts, and says such public labelling has proven "extremely dangerous" and led to threats against and murders of human rights defenders and trade unionists. It further states that lawyers working on politically sensitive cases or advocating for the rights of farmers and indigenous peoples have been killed.

The report also mentions the ouster of former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, criminal cases against opposition figures, media entities, and social media users who have posted content critical of the government's policies.

It states that the Commission on Human Rights has verified reports of killings by the New People's Army and that the government is looking into 80 incidents allegedly perpetrated by the armed group.

The report goes on to discuss "harmful rhetoric" from high-level government officials, ranging from "degrading and sexually-charged" remarks against women rights defenders and politicians to comments "encouraging extreme violence against drug users and peddlers."

"While numerous statements by President Duterte are subsequently clarified by his spokesperson and other officials as not to be taken literally, the widespread killings, detentions, red-tagging, and score-settling by State actors, including in the campaign against illegal drugs, suggest that his public comments may have incited violence and may have had the effect of encouraging, backing, or even ordering human rights violations with impunity," the report states.

"The use of such language could amount to a violation of the prohibition against arbitrary deprivation of life in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," it adds.

In conclusion, the report says the challenge is in the implementation of the human rights safeguards that are found in the Philippines' legal, constitutional, and institutional framework.

It says the OHCHR has documented killings of drug suspects and human rights defenders, the filing of charges against political opponents and NGO workers, the shutdown of a major media network, referring to ABS-CBN; and both online and offline red-tagging -- in just the first four months of 2020.

Heavy handed COVID-19 response

"The response to COVID-19 has seen the same heavy-handed security approach that appears to have been mainstreamed through the ramped-up drug war and counter-insurgency imperatives," the report states.

"While important measures were taken to mitigate the pandemic’s economic impact on vulnerable communities, threats of martial law, the use of force by security forces in enforcing quarantines, and the use of laws to stifle criticism have also marked the Government’s response," it adds.

Bachelet urged the Philippine government to end Project Tokhang, end extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions, and review its laws and policies on illegal drugs, and assist the families of drug-related killings.

The UN official also made several recommendations on national security, accountability, civic space, indigenous peoples, and likewise urged the government to cooperate with her office and the UN's human rights mechanisms.

Read the full report here. —AOL, GMA News