U.N. committee probes state of human rights in PH

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(CNN Philippines) — A U.N. committee raised several concerns on the state of human rights in the Philippines over the Arroyo, Aquino and Duterte administrations during a periodic review of the country held September 28 to 29 in Geneva, Switzerland.

The 18-member U.N. Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights probed the Philippine delegation on issues, such as poverty, education, labor, human trafficking, homelessness and gender equality.

Apart from looking at current issues, the committee also studied a 2014 consolidated report submitted by the Philippines. The country was last reviewed in 2008.

In her opening speech, Philippine delegation chief Rosemarie Edillon mentioned the administration's fight against government corruption. She specifically mentioned the Duterte administration's "8888" anti-corruption hotline, as well as his executive order on freedom of information.

Edillon also mentioned the country's gains against human trafficking, as well as improvements in areas including the protection of FIlipino migrant workers, workers' rights women's rights, culture, and education.

She read a portion of President Rodrigo Duterte's first State of the Nation Address, where he said that his administration "shall be sensitive to the Philippines' obligations to promote, and protect, fulfill the human rights of our citizens, especially the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable, and social justice will be pursued, even as the rule of law shall at all times prevail."

But U.N. committee member Rodrigo Uprimny was concerned about the government's war on illegal drugs: "I think you are taking a wrong and very dangerous path."

"You have very tough penalties for the use of drugs and that makes it very difficult [for those] who use drugs to find treatment," he added.

He said he was making the statement not just as a member of a human rights committee but also as a citizen of Colombia, which has also waged a war on narcotics.

"I know that President Duterte’s policy of war on drugs is very, very popular. In Colombia, it was also very, very popular. What we call “social cleansing” programs that mean killing in poor neighborhoods people who use drugs or petty criminals were very, very popular. But I think that democracy means, sometimes, to have the courage not to follow policies that might be very popular but undermines the rule of law and the respect for human rights."

Similarly, U.N. committee member Heisoo Shin questioned the Philippines' war on illegal drugs: "Everybody knows that your President Duterte's war against drugs, which causes almost 3,000 people killed without due judicial process and those who are killed and accused are mainly poor individuals suspected of drug dealing or drug uses. So where is the rule of law?"

Edillon explained that the Philippine government's instruction "really is to observe the rules of engagement whenever a buy-bust operation is being conducted." She said that if police are found at fault, "immediately they are relieved from their position."

Department of Justice Senior State Counsel Herminia Angeles-Natividad explained that "The deaths resulting from police operation against drug users, peddlers [and those manufacturing drugs]… are not extrajudicial killings under the veil of E.O. (Executive Order) 35 [s. 2012] - [because] they are not politically motivated. These incidents are considered criminal acts…"

E.O. 35 is a directive formed by then President Benigno Aquino III in 2012 that created an inter-agency committee on extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other grave violations of the right to life, liberty and security of persons. It is headed by the Department of Justice Secretary.

According to figures from the Philippine National Police, 1,276 "drug personalities" were killed in police operation from July 1 to September 29. On the government side, 13 from the police and 3 from the military were killed over the same period. In a separate table of police statistics, there have been 2,233 victims of murder and homicide cases from July 1 to September 27.

She also acknowledged that issue of overcrowded jails in the Philippines, and added that the government is taking steps to correct it. For example, she pointed out that the government has included the construction of "four large-capacity" drug rehabilitation centers in next year's budget.

Given that the current administration has yet to see its first 100 days, Edillon said they "were not ready for this magnitude of a problem (of illegal drugs)."

U.N. committee member Ariranga Pillay expressed disappointment that informal settlers are evicted without making sure they have suitable homes to move, or that they are not able to find jobs in the places they are relocated. He pointed to a lack of progress since 2008: "Just why is it depressing reading or hearing? Because we have mentioned all those problems in our concluding observations of 2008. And it would appear that nothing has been done."

"It seems that all those pertinent recommendations have been completely ignored and we will make it our duty to treat those concerns and recommendations."

However, Edillon earlier pointed out in her opening speech that "The President himself has declared a stop to all demolition of illegal settlements in the absence of suitable relocation sites."

National Housing Authority Department Manager Elsie Trinidad revealed the next day that "the average Philippine budget for housing for 2015 [to] 2016 is 1.3 percent of [the] national budget - the lowest in Asia."

She said that there is "definitely" a plan to increase the housing budget. Trinidad also enumerated the different government housing programs, such as for those living in danger areas, the distribution of government-owned lands, and the upgrading of settlements - which does not require resettlement.

The Philippine delegation was composed of officials from different government agencies, including the National Economic and Development Authority, Philippine Health Insurance Corp., the National Housing Authority, and the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Justice, Health, Labor and Employment, Agriculture, and Education.

The U.N. committee's probe of the Philippines was part of its 59th session, which began on September 19 and will end on October 7. Apart from the Philippines, the reviews of the human rights reports of Costa Rica, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Poland, and Tunisia are part of the session's agenda.