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Philippines UPR and Supreme Court deliberations offer a platform for mobilisation on human rights

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Last week, two important events concerning human rights (and politics) in the Philippines were under way. First is the Supreme Court deliberation on the motion for reconsideration filed by the Senate. Second is the Universal Periodic Review of the human rights record of the Philippines being undertaken by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations (UNHRC). Both should be used as a platform for people to mobilise and have their voice heard on the human rights situation in the Philippines.

By Benjie Oliveros
Published in Bulatlat, Vol. VIII, No. 10, April 13-19, 2008

Last week, two important events concerning human rights (and politics) were under way. First is the Supreme Court deliberation on the motion for reconsideration filed by the Senate. Second is the Universal Periodic Review of the human rights record of the Philippines being undertaken by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations (UNHRC).

The Senate is upbeat that the arguments they put forward in the motion could sway at least two to three justices to changes sides and therefore reverse the earlier decision of the Supreme Court upholding the right of Commission on Higher Education secretary and former National Economic Development Authority secretary Romulo Neri to invoke executive privilege in refusing to answer the questions of senators regarding his conversations with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo concerning the bribery attempt of former Commission on Elections Chair Benjamin Abalos Jr and the National Broadband Network contract with ZTE of China. Former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban is confident about the possibility of the High Court reversing its earlier en banc decision.
The controversy surrounding the assertion of executive privilege by Neri and the Arroyo government has become more than a constitutional question; it has become a political question. It is a political question because it concerns a conflict of rights and interest: between the right of the Arroyo government to keep official conversations confidential and the right of the public to information, especially on matters concerning and gravely affecting the Filipino people; and it has become an arena of battle between the opposition-dominated Senate, which is hell-bent on investigating the anomalies of the executive, and the Arroyo government, which is doing everything – including lie, kidnap and cover-up – to control the damage resulting from the expose of yet another corruption scandal involving Malacañang.

Moreover, despite the articulate 120 page opinion of Chief Justice Reynato Puno, and the sharp statement of Justice Antonio Carpio that executive privilege cannot be invoked to cover-up a crime, in this case corruption, the Supreme Court still voted in favor of the Arroyo government based on the mere assertion of Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita that revealing the conversations would jeopardise diplomatic relations with China.  This revealed that the earlier decision of the High Court was based on considerations not limited to constitutional and legal questions, perhaps political?

Because of this, for efforts to convince the High Court to reverse its earlier decision to become effective, it must not be limited to legal arguments. It must be complemented by a demonstration of political force by the Filipino people to assert their right to information and demand the truth. But the timing of the Supreme Court deliberation is on the side of the Arroyo government. The end of regular classes reduced the number of people joining rallies.  Nevertheless, the people must show their resoluteness by persistently holding mobilisations and having their voices heard

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the human rights record of 48 countries every year, which is being undertaken by the UNHRC, is a new review mechanism established by GA Resolution 60/251 and HRC Resolution 5/1 of 18 June 2007. While being a purely intergovernmental process, the UPR is an opportunity for peoples’ organisations to inform the international community of the human rights issues and concerns affecting the Filipino people. The power of international pressure concerning human rights issues can never be underestimated. It has put the Marcos fascist dictatorship on the defensive even at the height of its repressive rule. And it has forced the Arroyo government, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) to go slow in committing extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances since 2007 (although it did not stop them completely and not a single person has been hailed to court and convicted).
Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights), the Indigenous People’s Rights Monitor, the IBON Foundation and the National Council of Churches of the Philippines submitted reports and recommendations to the Working Group of the HRC.  GABRIELA and the Children’s Rehabilitation Center also sent information that was included in the submissions and the critique of NGOs on the report of the Arroyo government.
It is not expected that the UPR would result in the castigation of the Arroyo government for the spate of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, and for engendering widespread hunger and poverty. Being a purely intergovernmental process, the HRC – even if it accepted submissions from NGOs – and the UN, for that matter, could not and would not put to task any of its member-governments. Too many diplomatic and political considerations are at stake. Underlying these diplomatic and political considerations, of course, are trade relations and investments.
But the UPR could be used as a platform to reach out to peoples and organisations from other nations so that they, in turn, would pressure their respective governments to lean on the Arroyo government to improve its human rights record. Again, the peoples’ political pressure should be made to counter the diplomatic and political considerations governing relationships in the HRC, in particular, and the UN, in general.
Far from the wishes of certain groups, we could not do away with politics, except the traditional, patronage politics of the elite. The struggle for human rights – or as the late Sen. Jose W. Diokno put it, “Food, Freedom, Jobs, and Justice – is fought out in the political arena; for who and what is responsible for the rice and food crisis as manifested in the runaway prices of the very means of our existence, the widespread and worsening poverty and hunger, the persistent attacks on our civil liberties, the longest-running double-digit unemployment and underemployment rates, and the denial of justice to the ever-increasing victims of human rights violations, especially extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, but the Arroyo government and its anti-people policies and programs. Refusal to be involved in politics – that is, engaging the Arroyo government in a battle of wills and action – is to condone its illegal and self-serving acts and policies.