Philippines: If we continue with "drug free", we continue to violate human rights


Philippines: If we continue with "drug free", we continue to violate human rights

20 October 2022

Statement delivered at the 38th Meeting of the 51st Regular Session of the Human Rights Council, on 5 October 2022

Thank you very much. Good afternoon, everyone.

We are here now to discuss the human rights situation in the Philippines in the context of the UN Joint Program, where it is, potentially, a very good opportunity for us to make positive changes. Under this Joint Program, there also is a clear risk, actually, of institutionalizing human rights violations under a UN Joint Program for Human Rights.

I struggled with this. Because how can we move forward and fix things if we are not honest about what has been happening and continue to be happening? And we quibble over numbers instead of acknowledging the wrongs that have been committed against Filipinos, and where we should be facilitating accountability?

I struggle. For how can claims be made to address human rights violations when, many times, there is no clear understanding of where the violations are coming from? And this is especially true when we speak of treatment and health where actions and programs remain punitive and repressive.

There also continues to be a culture of surveillance and control. We have a very bad habit of tagging and labeling people. In the drug response, people continue to be placed on lists, and where it becomes so easy to scapegoat and arrest and kill in the name of the drug response. Where we lay blame where there should be none. We have arrested people on the lists, and heard reports where evidence is planted. It has also become easy to fabricate drug charges against individuals that have been considered as enemies, and letting them languish in jail.

The message seems to be: if it's drugs, we'll fix you or else. And this is the same kind of thinking that has fueled tens of thousands of people getting killed. Quibbling over numbers will not make this reality less real.

The Joint Program is a space, a unique space where government and civil society are able to work together. But we have to be seriously committed to create the changes that the Joint Program was intended for, and where it should not simply be a laundry list (of activities), a ticking-off exercise. We need to make sure that the programs really do translate to positive changes on the ground.

So, when we say we do training, for example, or capacity building, what are we capacitating people for? How would we assess being capacitated? How do we assess that these programs, these training programs, actually translate to engagements on the ground that protect and safeguard human rights? These are the questions that we need to be asking instead of asking whether somebody attended a program or not. Or, just quibbling over or ticking off the number of attendees in programs, ticking off the number of graduates in community-based programs. Instead of really trying to see, to ask the questions that we need to be asking:

Are these programs improving quality of life of individuals?

And, in doing programs under the Joint Program, are we sure we are not placing people in greater harm? How many have, in good faith, attended so-called community-based programs only to miss the last half because then, it was found out, they had been killed?

If we talk about health response, why are we not urgently setting in place harm reduction services that can protect and save lives? We have the evidence. Why are we ignoring that?

How come until now we have no ethical standards set in place? Where, as one government official said, harm reduction is good but sorry, we have a drug-free mandate.

The Joint Program does not exist in a vacuum. We have to recognize that there are laws, such as our drug law, that cause overcrowding in our prisons. We have sections of the drug law that are disproportionate where someone arrested for selling less than one gram of methamphetamine is dealt a life sentence. A penalty much, much harsher than for homicide.

Why are there laws and regulations, policy issuances, and (legislative) bills where information-gathering and surveillance are the norm? We have to stop the lists.

We must continue monitoring the Joint Program. The work is not done. We have opened an opportunity where the potential is great. If we drop the ball now and cease to continue to be critical and thorough in monitoring, we will have missed an opportunity from which other nations can learn. And we would miss the opportunity to put in place safeguards and protections for the next generation. Now is the time to put things in place.

I will take seriously what has been said (by the government) about working with civil society organizations. Civil society organizations are the ones working on the ground. We are here to help, to create the kind of environment that truly protects human rights.

And, one last thing -- to make real changes happen there are prerequisites. None of any of our recommendations will bring about meaningful change if it still lives within the narrative of living in a drug-free Philippines. This narrative is getting us stuck. If we continue with this narrative, we will continue to violate human rights.

So, I ask you again, as we continue discussions -- the Joint Program is an opportunity. There are words in the Joint Program; let them not be empty words. We can work together, but there has to be serious commitment among all those who are involved.

Thank you.