In war of words over UNHRC probe, clarity is lost
MANILA, Philippines – Lines have long been drawn in the debate over whether the administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte should be held responsible for the rising death toll in his violent campaign against drugs and criminality but a close vote by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to pursue an investigation expanded the verbal war zone for Duterte defenders and accusers.
Drowned in the noise, however, was a statement made by the spokesperson of the UNHRC chief, Michelle Bachelet, Ravina Shamdasani, who summed up, shortly after the UNHRC vote to investigate allegations of state-sponsored killings in the Philippines, what the resolution to investigate really meant.
It was a green light, she said in an interview with the UK-based news site The Guardian, “to get clarity around the contested facts, figures and circumstances” of reports alleging crimes against humanity in Duterte’s bloody campaign against the drug trade and crimes.
Clarity, however, is becoming the biggest casualty in the escalating war of words between Duterte and his followers on one hand and the Philippine President’s accusers on the other.
Breaking his silence for the first time on Friday at the 28th anniversary celebration of the government’s Bureau of Jail and Management Penology (BJMP), Duterte referred to the 18 nations that voted in favor of an investigation as “fools;”
“They don’t understand the social, political problems of the Philippines,” Duterte said. He did not elaborate, though.
Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, Duterte’s once-favorite police chief and now senator, brought the debate to a more personal level, offering to be beheaded if accusations were proven that the killings were state-sponsored under Duterte.
“They want to portray this as state-sponsored,” he told reporters on Friday (July 12) at the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters in Quezon City. “I will have my head cut off if this is state-sponsored.”
Dela Rosa said officials of the UNHRC should do the beheading themselves if they were able to prove the allegations true. “You come here and cut my head off if this is state-sponsored,” said the bald former police chief who is one of Duterte’s fair-haired boys.
“Come on down and see for yourself,” he said, not mentioning that Malacanang itself has closed the door to any international investigation.
The PNP chief, General Oscar Albayalde, aimed his fire at what he said was exaggerated guesswork by those claiming that the death toll had gone up to 27,000.
“Can we have a list of names of these 27,000 (dead people)?” he said. “Show us the list, the names and we will gladly investigate all of these if those numbers are true.”
Albayalde said the PNP can match the casualty figures, coming from human rights groups, with facts. “We have the list (of dead people),” Albayalde said.
“Ours is covered by data, records” that have been submitted to the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG),” he said.
He added as a joke that maybe the 27,000 casualty figure included even those who died of heart attacks or accidental homicides.
Asked by reporters if the PNP would supply its drug war data if UNHRC investigators asked for these, the PNP chief said: “We leave that up to the Executive department and higher authorities.”
He was clearly referring to the Office of the President, whose spokesperson, lawyer Salvador Panelo, had already declared the investigation unwelcome and considered it an “insult” to Philippine sovereignty.
Albayalde added, though, that he didn’t believe that there was a need for an international investigation because the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR), which was once threatened with extinction by a one peso budget proposed by Malacanang, was already doing its work.
“We have our own CHR which is perfectly working,” Albayalde said.
Dela Rosa echoed Albayalde’s joke about the high casualty figure probably including those who died of cardiac arrest or vehicular accidents.
The former police chief pointed to his victory in the Senate race as a vote of approval by the people for Duterte’s anti-drug and crime campaign. He said he would not have won had the people rejected Duterte’s war on drugs and its consequences.
Dela Rosa added that the PNP’s cleansing program was another proof there was no credibility in claims that the killings were state-sponsored. He said police officers had not been spared the lethal repercussion of the Duterte drug war. PNP records showed at least 50 police officers had been killed in anti-drug operations between July 2016 to June 2019. It was not clear if the list included policemen killed as drug suspects themselves.
Albayalde said another evidence to disprove allegations that the drug killings were state-sponsored were cases filed by the PNP Human Rights Affairs Office against at least 300 police officers for abuses during operations. The number was even higher than the 82 cases filed by the CHR, Albayalde added.
Among Duterte supporters in Congress, Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III found an argument to hold against nations that voted in favor of the UNHRC resolution to investigate killings in the Philippines.
He said nations that voted to investigate the Philippine government had not moral ascendancy to preach about human rights because they allow infants to be killed through abortions.
“Before the UN, US and western countries investigate the so-called extrajudicial killings here, they should tell us how many hundreds of thousands of babies they abort,” Sotto said in a Viber message to reporters. The United States has withdrawn as a member of the UNHRC.
“Don’t they have human rights?” Sotto said referring to unborn babies. “They have no moral high ground to lecture us,” said Sotto, who became famous for his comedic roles in movies and television during his acting days and had headed the Dangerous Drugs Board.
The now third-highest official of the land said Malacanang should simply ignore the UNHRC resolution.
Sotto seemed to echo Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr’s statement in reaction to the UNHRC vote that delegates who voted in favor of the resolution would soon receive money from drug lords. Sotto said nations who favored the investigation were “dangerous drug-tolerant.”
On the other side of the verbal battle line, human rights groups and critics of Duterte called the UNHRC vote as a victory.
The political opposition in Congress, however, appeared to tone down its reaction to the UNHRC resolution, simply saying, along with Vice President Leni Robredo, that the Duterte administration should let UN investigators in if it had nothing to hide.
The most vocal groups, however, were those that had pinned squarely on Duterte the blame for the killings.
“This is a message to victims that they have been heard,” said Agnes Callamard, special UN rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, following the UNHRC vote and who had become a household name in the Philippines following Duterte’s rants and threat to slap her.
“Finally, now we need action,” Callamard said.
“We need an end to the war on drugs. We need a human rights approach to fighting crime,” added Callamard.
Karapatan (Right), a Philippine human rights group, also said agents of the Duterte administration had tried to bully delegates at the UNHRC to vote against the resolution to sabotage it.
“We are witness to these actions,” said Christina Palabay, head of Karapatan, at a press conference on Friday (July 12).
She said “up until the last minute, they have been trying to sabotage the resolution both in the capitals” of nations that are UNHRC members in the UNHRC headquarters in Geneva and in the Philippines.
“They wasted people’s money to mobilize diplomats” to block a vote in favor of the resolution, Palabay claimed.
Rubylin Lintao, coordinator of the group Rise Up for Life which is a critic of the bloodshed that went with Duterte’s drug war, said the Philippine government had nothing to fear about the UNHRC investigation if it was certain about not being responsible for the killings.
Some of the more militant groups thrust bayonets at the government side, claiming justice was catching up with it.
“The day of reckoning is at hand,” declared Migrante International, a militant organization of overseas Filipino workers.
The facts appear to be lost amid the noise generated by the war of words but Duterte critics had used as ammunition against the President a statement he made in a speech before career executive officers in Malacanang on Sept. 27, 2018.
“This pontifical Pangilinan he talks as if he’s guilt-free. He’s the president of the Liberal (Party) but look, even he won’t win,” Duterte said in that speech that started with a rant against Sen. Francis Pangilinan, whom the President was berating for authoring a law setting the age of criminal liability to 15.
“Me, I will talk to a political exercise now. What are your sins? Me? I told the military, what is your sin? Did you steal? Did I steal even a single peso? Did I prosecute somebody that I sent to jail? My only sin is the extrajudicial killing,” Duterte said in Filipino at that speech. WITH REPORTS BY CATHRINE GONZALES, CHRISTIA MARIE RAMOS AND CONSUELO MARQUEZ
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