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PH turns a blind eye to rights abuses abroad

/ 09:53 PM December 08, 2011

GENEVA—There were high hopes when the Philippines rejoined the 47-member Human Rights Council in June that President Aquino would make human rights a centerpiece of his foreign policy. But so far, the Philippines has fallen well short of expectations.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) finally found its footing about a year ago, taking bold steps to respond to human rights emergencies around the world. It has launched investigations into brutal crackdowns in Iran and Libya and the recent post-election violence in Cote d’Ivoire. It provided technical assistance to Tunisia during its political transition and to Kyrgyzstan, following the wave of ethnic violence. Many members that had long been timid about taking a stand have started taking action. The Philippines, sadly, is not among them.


Last week, the Philippine government continued its practice of turning a blind eye to rights abuses abroad, failing to join the council in condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s repression in Syria. The council resolved to strongly condemn the “continued widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights, and fundamental freedoms” by the Syrian authorities, following an international commission of inquiry which found that crimes against humanity had been committed. The council urged the Syrian government to immediately put an end to all violations and to investigate all reports of abuses.

While an overwhelming majority of the council supported this resolution, the Philippines abstained from voting, missing an important opportunity to show its support for Syria’s beleaguered population.

The Philippines’ indecisiveness in the face of rights abusers has been a frequent feature of its voting record, both at the Human Rights Council between 2006 and 2010 and at the United Nations General Assembly. The Philippines has consistently abstained from voting on a resolution condemning human rights violations in North Korea. For years, it has abstained from denouncing rights abuses in Burma and Iran at the General Assembly. It opposed international scrutiny of Sudan in 2008, denunciation of wartime abuses in Sri Lanka in 2009, and strengthening the council’s engagement with the violence-wracked Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009, while the UN and scores of human rights groups were raising concerns on the gravity of these situations and calling for greater international engagement. The only occasions in which the Philippines condemned a country for its rights record relate to abuses by Israel.

The Philippines has notably pushed the council on issues that cut close to home: championing the fight against human trafficking, advocating for protection of migrant rights, and working against racism and discrimination. But to show its commitment to human rights globally, the Philippine government should speak up against the worst human rights abusers.

The Philippines’ reluctance to speak out has become even more visible as its neighbors have begun to support international responses to human rights crises. Thailand and Indonesia have demonstrated their capacity to move away from their traditional abstentions by supporting council country resolutions over the past year. In fact, both countries supported the recent resolutions on Syria and were joined by Malaysia in the Dec. 2 vote.

In its pre-election pledge, as it sought to rejoin the Human Rights Council, the Philippines stressed that the council should  “focus on capacity-building and international cooperation on human rights.” But that approach alone cannot work when governments such as Syria and North Korea are averse to recognizing or addressing their rights challenges.

In a September report about influential states at the council, Human Rights Watch called on the council’s newly elected members to lose their hesitancy and to look at the real motives of states that challenge its capacity to respond to human rights crises.

As a people that embraces democracy and recognizes domestic human rights challenges, Filipinos should press their government to join with other countries that are making the victims of human rights violations the priority, not their abusive leaders.

The recent discussion on Syria was a missed opportunity for the Philippines to contribute to fulfilling the council’s mandate. The Aquino administration should adopt a more robust stance, make an objective assessment of each human rights situation that comes before the council and promote the best response to ensure justice and accountability. It should abandon the approach of former administrations that concluded that ambivalence was the best answer to the most urgent human rights situations around the world.


Philippe Dam is the acting Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

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