Written by Nick Cumming-Bruce
The United Nations’ top human rights body voted Thursday to examine thousands of alleged extrajudicial police killings linked to President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines, a campaign that rights groups around the world have denounced as a lawless atrocity.
The UN’s 47-member Human Rights Council supported a resolution led by Iceland that turned a spotlight on wide-ranging abuses, including killings; enforced disappearances; arbitrary arrests; and persecution of rights activists, journalists, lawyers and members of the political opposition.
Despite fierce opposition from Philippine officials, 18 countries backed the resolution, while 14 opposed it, and 15 others abstained.
The Philippine foreign minister, Teodoro Locsin, in a statement read by his ambassador in Geneva, denounced the resolution as a travesty of human rights that came “straight from the mouth of the queen in Alice in Wonderland.”
“Do not presume to threaten states with accountability for a tough approach to crushing crime” in which some countries were complicit and others tolerant, he said.
The resolution stopped short of setting up a full-fledged commission of inquiry but calls on the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, to prepare a comprehensive report for delivery to the council in a year’s time. That would set the stage for tougher follow-up action if abuses continued unabated, diplomats said.
“It’s a modest resolution, but it is a very critical step to putting the Philippines on the track to accountability and to show that the killing of thousands of drug war victims has not gone unnoticed by the international community,” said Laila Matar, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s group monitoring the United Nations.
In the run-up to Thursday’s vote, Philippine diplomats lobbied fiercely to dissuade council members from supporting what they considered to be a hostile resolution. They fired off memorandums to diplomatic missions in Geneva challenging the initiative as an abuse of Human Rights Council procedures and a bad use of resources.
“I have never seen a countercampaign of the level of this one by the Philippines,” Matar said.
In light of that effort, supporters of the resolution considered it something of a victory that so many countries abstained rather than opposing the measure. The vote came just days after one of the drug war’s youngest victims, 3-year-old Myca Ulpina, was killed in a police raid.
The Philippine government has acknowledged at least 6,600 deaths in the anti-drug campaign since 2016, but human rights groups believe the death toll is much higher.
UN human rights experts called last month for an investigation into the “staggering number” of extrajudicial killings, which the Philippines’ human rights commission has estimated could run to more than 27,000.
Amnesty International, in a report last week, described Duterte’s war on drugs as “nothing but a large-scale murdering enterprise” mainly targeting the poor.
“It is not safe to be poor in President Duterte’s Philippines. All it takes to be murdered is an unproven accusation that someone uses, buys or sells drugs,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southeast Asia. “It is time for the United Nations, starting with its Human Rights Council, to act decisively to hold President Duterte and his government accountable.”
Duterte is scheduled to deliver his annual state of the nation address later this month, so the resolution “comes at a most pressing and opportune time,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of a Philippine human rights group, Karapatan. “This is not the end-all, be-all of our efforts to exact accountability, but we take it as a critical start.”
Any inquiry looks set to infuriate Manila. Duterte has fired off insults at UN human rights experts, and the government sought to have the expert on the rights of indigenous people, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, declared a terrorist when she criticized the government’s actions.
The Human Rights Council resolution underscores the outsized influence small countries can wield — in particular, the surprising role of Iceland, with fewer than 400,000 people. Since taking the seat left vacant when the United States withdrew from the council last year, Iceland has actively supported several contentious resolutions that many other nations have avoided for fear of retaliation by powerful states.
Iceland took the lead on a series of statements of concern on the Philippine drug war, supported an investigation into abuses in the civil war in Yemen, backed calls for an international inquiry into the killing of Jamal Khashoggi by agents of Saudi Arabia, and this week joined a statement critical of China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang province.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines