Wednesday, 17 October 2018
Philippines: Human Rights
Last week, at the invitation of Brother Armin Luistro, I had the privilege of addressing the law students at the De La Salle University in Manila. The trip was a great opportunity to engage with the issue of human rights, reinforcing our collective need to act and not just despair when human rights principles are at stake. When I first mentioned to others that I intended to take this visit to the Philippines to discuss the issue of human rights, many suggested I should rethink my plans based on issues of personal safety. However, in the words of Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch:
Human rights standards provide guidance but become operational only with champions among governments and ordinary people.
Any attack on human rights is an attack on our collective humanity, and this is why I did decide to take the trip to the Philippines. We must never remain silent when human rights are being attacked. Silence only encourages those who seek to undermine human rights principles and structures and our democratic institutions.
While it is important for leaders to show commitment where there are threats to the wellbeing of a community, action should be proportionate, evidence based, subject to appropriate oversight and, most importantly, compliant with the rule of law. Extrajudicial killings have been the principal concern of human rights in the Philippines for some time, particularly under the nationwide antidrug campaign. Summary and lethal justice based on mere suspicion has claimed the lives of thousands, with some sources claiming the number could be as high as 20,000 over the last two years alone. A key aspect of President Duterte's policy on extrajudicial killings is reliance on a watch list of suspected people. These lists provide police and, somehow, vigilante groups with a licence to kill. The lack of due process in police operations and the fact that these deaths are not being transparently investigated, I've got to say, is of great concern.
During my trip, I spent time with students, representatives, academic staff and religious leaders at the De La Salle University. I met with the human rights commission; Australia's ambassador, Amanda Gorely, and her staff; senior members of the legal profession engaged in human rights advocacy; members and senators of the Philippine parliament; and, most importantly for me, the families of victims.
It was a particularly emotional trip, with the situation in the Philippines best described as depressing. There was much discussion about the existence of a bounty system. An estimate is made of the number of people involved with drugs, a district quota is determined and funds are then allocated to police or vigilante groups on the basis of each killing they carry out.
Apart from the grave issues surrounding the policy of extrajudicial killings, President Duterte has also launched a crackdown on civil society, threatening to abolish their Commission on Human Rights, banning news organisations who are critical of him, castigating United Nations officials and, most recently, withdrawing from the International Criminal Court.
One critic who has publicly spoken out about the president's murderous campaign on drugs is Senator Leila de Lima. Senator de Lima has been in prison since February 2017, charged with drug related offences associated with her term as Secretary of the Department of Justice. The evidence against her consists of untested statements from prison inmates, police and prison officials. I attempted to visit Senator de Lima whilst I was in Manila but I was advised that she's been denied all access to visits from foreign officials. On my last day in the Philippines, I wrote to Senator de Lima and I pledged to raise her plight in the Australian parliament. In part, I said, 'I trust you know you have many friends in the international community as you are seen as a vanguard of truth and justice, a protector of human rights and one who profoundly believes in the rule of law.' Mr Speaker, I would seek to table a copy of the speech I delivered to the De La Salle University on 9 October this year.