Philippines: Global solidarity and support to address violations of human and trade union rights

published 11 October 2021 updated 10 October 2023

Human and trade union rights violations in the Philippines – and the need to highlight evidence of them internationally – were the focus of a high-level roundtable on 8 October.

The roundtable discussion, “An international response to human rights in the Philippines”, was co-sponsored by Education International and other global civil society organisations.

The event was organised by the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP), a global network of organisations concerned about the human rights situation in the Philippines and committed to campaign for a just and lasting peace in the country.

UN report maintains pressure on human rights

ICHRP chair Peter Murphy opened the roundtable discussion by recalling the oral report on the Philippines presented to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) the previous day. The update was presented by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, one year after the UNHRC had passed a resolution to provide “technical cooperation and capacity-building” to the Government of the Republic of the Philippines for the protection of human rights.

In her presentation, Bachelet noted the progress of the UN joint programme for technical assistance and capacity-building on human rights, adopted on 22 July this year. She also stressed the ongoing lack of accountability for the killings and rights violations in the counterinsurgency programme; continuing harassment, threats, and killings of human rights defenders, church workers, environmental and land rights defenders, journalists, trade unionists, farmers and lawyers. She criticised the government's ongoing red-tagging of activists, media and other actors, and called for an end to the use of hate language during the unfolding national election campaign.

ICHRP calls for an official UN investigation

ICHRP fully endorses High Commissioner Bachelet’s comment that the decision of the International Criminal Court Pre-Trial Chamber to open an investigation in the Philippines is a significant indication of the inadequate, if not non-existent, domestic remedies in the country, Murphy stressed.

He said that the formal response of the Philippine delegate demonstrated that the Duterte government continues to reject any criticism of its human rights record. Instead, they are doubling down on the use of red-tagging to terrorise any critics by alleging, without evidence, that they recruit fighters for the New People’s Army.

For Murphy, High Commissioner Bachelet’s report clearly demonstrated the lack of domestic mechanisms in the Philippines to end such human rights violations.

Given the worsening human rights situation, ICHRP endorses the recommendations of INVESTIGATE PH, including calling for a formal UN investigation of human rights violations in the Philippines.

ICHRP also calls on the UNHRC to maintain its efforts to hold the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and its officials accountable for the thousands of violations of human rights carried out as official state policy.

“We want to think about how to better respond to human rights violations and show solidarity with Filipino civil society,” Murphy concluded.

Unanimous commitment to act by global union movement

International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Director for Human and Trade Union Rights Jeroen Beirnaert stressed the work undertaken by Global Unions to protect human and trade union rights and denounce violations in the Philippines.

“It is not that often that we have such a strong coordination and unanimity about freedom of association as in the case of the Philippines,” he noted.

“Our concerns are not necessarily shared by governments and employers, who can thrive in a political environment hostile to union rights.”

Beirnaert explained that while trade unions at international level have the experience of technical assistance, via the International Labour Organization (ILO) for example, there is a clear lack of political will in the Philippines to put a halt to human and trade union rights violations.

Therefore, “we need to push for political pressure in the country to drive real change. We need thorough documentation and evidence-building”, and “international advocacy fora must work together”.

Insisting that “we must break the convenient excuse of COVID-19 used by government in order not to engage in investigation activities”, Beirnaert emphasised that the involvement of civil society and unions at national and international levels is important to monitor and address the violations of human rights in the Philippines.

Overwhelming evidence of shocking attacks against the Filipino people

Australian politician Janet Elizabeth Rice, one of Investigate PH’s Commissioners, said the “evidence obtained was overwhelming,” and “the attacks of the Duterte government against the people – in particular Indigenous, students, human rights defenders, and peace advocates – are shocking”.

Qualifying Bachelet’s report as “significant”, she insisted that “if we can mobilise political parties and public opinion in our countries, we can be effective in putting pressure on the Filipino government and have change happen”.

Calling for more than technical cooperation, she added that human rights activists in the Philippines need a UN independent investigation of human rights violations.

“These appalling attacks must be stopped. Human rights should be respected, and it is up to all of us to see human rights respected in the Philippines and around the world,” said Rice, who is a member of the Australian Greens.

Investigations require adequate human and financial resources

The Head of the Freedom of Association Branch at the ILO International Labour Standards Department, Karen Curtis, reiterated that the Philippines is a longstanding member of the ILO. “We need to have enough staff and resources to investigate the situation,” she emphasised.

A freedom of association case has been opened at the ILO against the Government of the Philippines– Case No 3185 – for the extrajudicial killings of trade union leaders, which cites the failure of the Government to adequately investigate these cases and bring the perpetrators to justice. That failure to investigate and prosecute reinforces the climate of impunity, violence, and insecurity with its damaging effects on the exercise of trade union rights.

Belgian Green federal MP Séverine de Laveleye remarked that it was difficult to put the Philippines on the political agenda in a foreign country like her own. She stressed that ending trade preferences with the Philippines could be helpful and something to build on.

Participants also welcomed Rappler editor, Maria Ressa, being awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. Ressa has long been fighting for freedom of expression in the Philippines and exposing the human rights violations of the Duterte government. She is subject to threats and has been repeatedly prosecuted for her work. The award is an important recognition not only of her efforts, but of the need for facts and honest and ethical reporting. The public in the Philippines is largely dependent on information being supplied by social media.