EU body flags grave concern over human rights, 'shrinking' media freedom in PH

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The European Commission says drug war deaths, attacks on human rights defenders, and "shrinking" media freedom pose serious concerns in the Philippines.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 12) — The European Commission flagged "grave" concerns over drug war deaths, attacks on human rights defenders, and shrinking media freedom in the Philippines.

The body, which evaluates the grant of duty-free exports for Philippine companies sending their goods to the European Union, pointed out pressing issues in the country.

"The conclusions from the mission showed a mixed picture with continuing violations of civil and political rights and some positive developments in the socio-economic and environmental fields," the commission said in the report published Monday.

A monitoring team visited Manila and Cebu in September-October 2018 to assess the social and economic situation and evaluate the Philippines' compliance with the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus or GSP+, which removes taxes on goods imported from developing nations as long as commitments on human rights, labor rights, environment, and good governance are met.

The Philippines currently enjoys duty-free exports to the economic bloc under the GSP+. In 2018, the EU body said 25.6 percent or 1.9 billion euros worth of Philippine products have not been taxed through the arrangement. The country's top exports were animal and vegetable oils, electrical equipment, and prepared meat and fish products.

"In the Philippines, there is serious concern about the death toll linked to the campaign against illegal drugs and the lack of effective, impartial and transparent investigations of all cases of death; and the impunity related to the killing, harassment and attacks against media personnel," the commission said.

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It was only in December 2019 when a Quezon City court was able to grant justice to the victims of the Maguindanao Massacre, a decade after 58 people including 32 media workers were violently slain as they accompanied a politician's convoy. Eight members of the Ampatuan clan were found guilty of the crime and have been sentenced 40 years in jail.

Regulators have revoked online media outlet Rappler's license to do business in 2018, citing foreign ownership. Rappler, which continues to operate as it appeals the regulators' decision, also faces separate cyber libel and tax evasion charges.

Just this week, the government's top lawyer ran to the Supreme Court asking to cancel the existing franchise of ABS-CBN, citing two violations. Congress has also sat on bills seeking to renew the network's franchise, which lapses by end-March.

Human rights

Meanwhile, the body said reimposing death penalty, alongside the bloody drug war, would violate the the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which the Philippines signed in 2007.

The EU unit also flagged attacks on human rights defenders and plans to lower the minimum age for criminal liability to 12. "Ongoing dialogue is constructive but more needs to be done," the commission said.

"The Philippines' withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, declared on March 17, 2018, took effect on March 17, 2019, adding to negative developments regarding the fight against impunity," it added.

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Manila remains a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council for 2019-2021, which passed a resolution expressing concern over alleged human rights violations in the country last year.

Government data show 5,375 people have been killed in anti-illegal drug operations from July 2016 to March 2019. The country's independent Commission on Human Rights as well as international human rights groups have pegged the deaths at more than 27,000.

Duterte responded by ordering agencies to suspend discussions for aid with countries calling for a probe on the government's deadly war on drugs.

READ: Philippines rejects fresh call for UN probe into drug war

Signs of progress

On the other hand, the European Commission noted that gains have been made in reducing poverty, hunger, and joblessness among Filipinos, as well as the creation of the Bangsamoro region to bring lasting peace in Mindanao. It added that child labor and labor contractualization, remain as areas of concerns.

It said that the Philippines fulfilled its reporting requirements to the EU, except that for a human rights convention against racial discrimination which it committed to submit by end-2019.