The Philippines has been elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council, boosting President Rodrigo Duterte’s reputation after two years of criticism of hitman-style killings in his country’s crackdown on illegal drugs.
Rights groups opposed the country’s bid, saying it has no business joining the council, which calls out rights abuses.
Duterte, elected in 2016, has openly challenged U.N. special rapporteurs worried about conditions in the Philippines. Earlier this year, his government withdrew from the statute behind the International Criminal Court as the court was checking accusations that Duterte and other officials had committed crimes against humanity in the anti-drug campaign.
But Duterte has allowed the Philippine government’s own Commission on Human Rights to check reports of up to 12,000 extrajudicial killings, including minors, at the hands of police trying to throttle the drug trade. Duterte has also approved “reforms” for the rights of common Filipinos, his foreign secretary says.
“It’s rather strange it’s applying for another U.N. body which also discusses human rights,” said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman. “It also shows that in a sense there are different voices in the Philippine government.”
Election Oct. 12
The Philippines renewed its seat along with Bahrain, Bangladesh, Fiji and India. With the number of candidates equal to the number of openings, the countries do not compete, but U.N. members have the right to vote against any applicant for the three-year term.
Manila joins eight other existing members, including China and Japan. The council investigates allegations of human rights breaches in U.N. member countries, following issues such as freedom of expression, women’s rights and the rights of ethnic minorities.
Advocacy groups have criticized the council previously for letting in countries with what they describe as poor human rights records. Last year, for example, the advocacy group UN Watch urged the United Nations to look harder at the candidacies of Afghanistan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar and three African countries.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano defended his government’s human rights record during a U.N. General Assembly session last month in New York. Government “reforms,” he said, have “helped protect the rights” of all in the Philippines.
“As a sovereign and democratic country led by a duly elected president, we are on track in salvaging our deteriorating country from becoming a narco-state or a state held hostage by the rich and powerful who ignore the plight of the poor, powerless and marginalized,” Cayetano said.
The U.N. body in particular should “openly, frankly and thoroughly” discuss the rights of migrants, he added.
Human rights record
Duterte has enjoyed high approval ratings over perceptions that his anti-drug work and crackdowns on other crimes have made cities safer. But some of the suspected extrajudicial killings, including teenagers shot by police last year during drug raids, have angered some citizens.
Police or special agents killed at least 54 people age 18 or younger in Duterte’s first year, media outlet Rappler.com said.
Filipinos also want police to stop high-level drug dealers, Atienza said. The U.N. bid this week may be “a publicity thing” for the president, she said.
The president has acknowledged the killings publicly and vowed to stop police from using that approach to solving drug crimes. His Commission on Human Rights called Oct. 4 for “expedient action and rectification from the state” after Duterte described the extrajudicial killing as his “only sin.”
But Duterte in June told a U.N. judicial independence rapporteur to “go to hell,” and earlier in the year called its special rapporteur on indigenous peoples “a terrorist.”
Application to renew membership on the U.N. council is “ironic” because Duterte has resisted the United Nations and International Criminal Court to avoid accountability, said Renato Reyes, secretary general of the Manila-based Bagong Alyansang Makabaya alliance of left-wing social causes.
People in the alliance have felt “vilified” for their work, Reyes added. Alliance members sometimes organize protests calling attention to issues such as poverty and resource distribution.
“Human rights defenders are under attack in the Philippines,” Reyes said. Whether it’s the Commission on Human Rights or other groups, “advocates like us are being vilified, and treated as enemies of the state or destabilizers, so It would be untenable if the Philippine government pursues its application,” Reyes said.