Human rights stakeholders discussed recommendations for the Philippines from the 4th Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations (UN) on the country’s human rights record and identified ways forward. The Council for People’s Development and Governance (CPDG) co-organized the event with the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) of the Philippines, the United Nations (UN) Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights through the United Nations Philippine Office, and the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) on February 17 at the University Hotel, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City.
Commission on Human Rights Chairperson Atty. Richard Palpal-latoc and UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights representative Signe Poulsen formally opened the event with their insights on the fourth UPR of the Philippines and the prospects for improving human rights in the country.
Atty. Palpal-latoc said the CHR notes the Philippine government’s readiness to engage with the UPR. He said that the CHR welcomes the initial report that the Philippine government will accept 215 out of 289 UPR recommendations propounded by the international community. Atty. Palpal-latoc encouraged the stakeholders to closely monitor the implementation of the recommendations through close coordination with the government. “The government’s faithful execution of the recommendations would certainly manifest the seriousness of its commitment to end grave human rights violations”, stressed Atty. Palpal-latoc.
Civil society groups were circumspect and pointed out that human rights in the country under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is still marred by bad policymaking, anti-people legislation, and repressive measures including many carried over from the previous government. Human rights violations have also continued in its first year of office.
Poulsen on the other hand emphasized the empowering role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in working together to come up with their joint UPR recommendations. “The UPR is a critical tool for the promotion and protection of human rights, at the national and international level,” Poulsen said, especially in broadening human rights discourse in the country.
Four panels composed of CSO representatives presented their broad review on the different aspects of UPR recommendations and their impacts under a new Marcos regime.
Panel 1 focused on economic, cultural, and social rights (ESCR), environmental and developmental rights, freedom of expression and freedom of association. Speakers emphasized how these rights are not protected or diminished by government policies. They called out anti-people practices such as large-scale mining, red-tagging and state-sponsored harassment, and contractualization. They challenged the Philippine government to create inclusive policies that would positively impact the quality of human rights enjoyed by Filipinos.
Panel 2 tackled issues surrounding constitutional and political rights, the right to life, and counter-terrorism. Speakers in this panel highlighted how legal mechanisms such as the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 and the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict are weaponized against communities, critics and civil society astride extrajudicial killings and other violent attacks. While critical of the Marcos government’s posturing that the justice system is working, they said that the recommendations accepted by the government can be used to urge policy shifts towards ensuring civil rights and political liberties.
Lastly, Panels 3 and 4 ventured into the specificities of human rights issues in different marginalized sectors – persons with disabilities, women, children, indigenous peoples and Bangsamoro peoples, the elderly, migrant workers, LGBTQIA+, youth, and the homeless and informal workers. Most of the sectoral representatives shared four major observations. First, is the tendency for recommendations to be “too general”. Second, the government rejected recommendations that critically called for its accountability in anti-people practices. Third, consultative and inclusive development processes and paradigms must be improved. Fourth, there remains a lot of work until the next UPR cycle to actualize the recommendations and improve human rights in each sector or group.
In closing the event, Atty. Gemma Parojinog, Director of the CHR’s Human Rights Policy Advisory Office and Chairperson of the UN Joint Programme’s Technical Working Group on Civic Spaces related the UPR recommendations to the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which governments and CSOs are working together to achieve. She noted how many of the eventual recommendations were due to civil society efforts to lobby for them.
CPDG Vice President Rochelle Porras gave a summary of key points in the stakeholders’ review and encouraged CSOs to work towards the success of their recommendations. “The active engagement of CSOs in spite of the Human Rights situation in the Philippines is a neon sign that the people want change, want improvements. As we have experienced by now, one path to fulfill the change that we want is through maximizing mechanisms that are open for CSOs to engage with. After all, CSOs are important stakeholders in ensuring rights based development”, said Porras.
Porras also encouraged all stakeholders to support and endorse the CSO Manifesto for enabling and strengthening civic spaces. The CSO Manifesto has three key asks: (1) Uphold the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of the people; (2) Develop and implement policies and mechanisms that ensure the inclusive, independent and decisive participation of CSOs in development and governance discussions, from local to national level; and, (3) Support CSO efforts to improve their own effectiveness, transparency and accountability to the people and constituencies they serve through enabling policies, capacity development and financing.
According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States.” One UPR cycle lasts for four and a half years where States assess their human rights situation and CSOs urge governments towards a people-centered policy direction.