Filipinos raise protests from the streets to higher grounds
Manila —The first impeachment complaint, a message for help to the United Nations and an expression of concern from the European Parliament – these, in one breath, confronted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in mid-March that questioned his growing authoritarian government.
Filed a day before Congress adjourned for a seven-week break (the Philippine Senate and House of Representatives resume sessions May 2), the impeachment complaint was filed by opposition Congressman Gary Alejano who accused Duterte of concealing assets and conflicts of interest, betrayal of public trust, high crimes, abuse of power, drug-related extrajudicial killings and running an alleged death squad when he was mayor of Davao City.
In the same stride, the European Parliament expressed “significant concerns” over the human rights situation in the Philippines during the 34th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva as it called on the Philippine government over the “very high number” of deaths related to Duterte’s drug war.
The EU Parliament also urged the country not to revive capital punishment after majority of Congress voted to restore it, and also opposed to a bill that sought to lower the age of criminal liability from 15 years to nine years old.
A few days prior, Philippine Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo brought to the world’s attention the troubling drug war of Duterte that has resulted in more than 7,000 deaths in the bloody campaign in only the first eight months of his governance.
Robredo’s message was in a six-minute video shown last March 16 at the 60th UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs annual meeting in Vienna, Austria. “Our people feel both hopeless and helpless: a state of mind that we must all take seriously," Robredo said in the video in yet her strongest criticism against Duterte.
She described the deaths as "summary executions" and called attention to a police scheme of detaining innocent people, called “palit-ulo” or “exchange heads” where cops detain a relative of a drug suspect they could not find.
"To know that the international community's eyes are on us and to feel that human rights advocates are watching over our country gives us comfort, courage and hope," she said.
Duterte assumed office on June 30, 2016 with a campaign promise to eradicate illegal drugs and vowed to have people killed by the thousands in the crackdown. Robredo, who belongs to a rival political party and was elected separately from the president as done in poll procedures, has raised her criticisms and was removed by Duterte from his cabinet in December after she spoke out against some of his policies.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also warned that Duterte would be responsible for crimes against humanity with the killings that he sanctioned, but the president maintained that the police and security forces are not breaking any laws.
His office has also called the impeachment complaint as part of a destabilization plot and questioned the vice president’s motives in elevating her criticism to the UN. Duterte’s appointed men in the judiciary and followers in Congress have filed counter-impeachment complaints against Robredo.
Human rights groups have warned of a rising climate of fear that is leaving many Filipinos unwilling to speak out against Duterte or police abuse.
The EU Parliament’s March 14 resolution called for the immediate release of former justice secretary now Senator Leila De Lima, the highest profile critic of Duterte, who was arrested and detained in February on drug trafficking charges which rights groups insisted were manufactured to silence her and intimidate others.
The EU lawmakers said De Lima was exposed to harassment and intimidation from the authorities, and these attacks have intensified over the last eight months that also saw her removal as chairperson of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights that was investigating the alleged extrajudicial killings of more than 1, 000 drug suspects while Duterte was mayor.
Calling attention to the “very high number of killings” in the drug war, the EU stressed the importance of implementing the fight against drug crime in accordance with the rule of law and in respect of human rights. “This must include the right to due process and safeguarding the right to life as well as the respect of the proportionality principle” as it called on the “protection of human rights defenders” and underlined the “importance of freedom of expression and opinion.”
The EU Parliament also said it is “deeply alarmed” at Congress’ bills reintroducing the death penalty or on lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 9 years currently under discussion as it called on the Philippines to “respect its obligations under international law.”
It also said human rights defenders, activists and journalists in the Philippines face regular threats, harassment, intimidation and cyber bullying, but those violating their rights are not being held to account and that proper investigations are not being conducted. It also expressed alarm that in November 2016, President Duterte openly threatened to kill human rights defenders.
Impeachment in the Philippines is the only constitutional method to hold a sitting president accountable, but the Magdalo party list of Congressman Alejano who filed the impeachment complaint said they know “it’s an uphill battle but we believe that many will support this complaint because we are giving Filipinos the strength to speak up against a powerful president.”