Is the UN Complicit in Philippines’ Lethal Drug War?

    At the start of the summer, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) announced it had found thousands, and potentially tens of thousands, of fatalities in the Philippines as a result of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on people who use drugs. Advocates then called for further on-the-ground, independent investigations into the violence.

    Almost exactly four months later, during the 45th UN General Assembly on October 7, the UNHRC passed a resolution that does not introduce the additional scrutiny sought by activists, but instead takes a collaborative position through the provision of so-called “technical assistance.”

    The resolution, according to a statement made by UNHRC Secretary Goro Onojima, aims at “improving further the situation of human rights in the Philippines.” It authorizes the preparation of a report to be presented in 2022 and the provision of “technical assistance and capacity-building” to the Duterte government.

    This assistance will seek to tweak systems and institutions that have proven themselves to be in direct opposition of drug users’ human rights.

    Support on improving national “reporting” and “data gathering” comes up against a history of notoriously unreliable statistics and reports produced by the very state waging the war. Work on “engagement with civil society” will be confronted by a public that has remained widely supportive of the bloody drug war. It will have to reconcile its assistance on “counter-terrorism legislation” with the alleged human rights violations enabled by the Philippines’ Anti-Terrorism Act, signed into law on July 3, that empowers the government to label its critics as terrorists. And, of course, it will have to intervene in the harassment experienced by on-the-ground harm reductionists if it seeks to assist the country with development of “human rights-based approaches to drug control.”

    The program includes just over a year-and-a-half of “technical assistance, expertise and substantive programme support,” costing $414,000, according to a document of the program’s budget implications.

    Oral statement – PDF


    “This is a collective failure by the States at this Council. We are shocked by the lack of support for a more robust response,” stated 14 human rights organizations on October 6. “We acknowledge the rationale presented for constructive engagement with the Government of the Philippines. However, an approach based purely on technical cooperation and capacity-building has no realistic prospect of meaningful impact with a government that denies the true scale and severity of the human rights violations, has publicly endorsed the policy of killings, avoids independent investigations, and continues to crack down on civil society.”

    One advocate warned that the policy decision implicates the international governing system intended to protect people’s rights. “UN risks being complicit in very serious human rights abuses,” said Ann Fordham, executive director at the International Drug Policy Consortium and one of the authors of a joint statement issued by a transnational coalition of harm reductionists and human rights activists in response to the UNHCR resolution.

    In the statement, the harm reductionists put the UNHRC on notice for its responsibility for the state of violence in the Philippines. For them, it’s up to the body to ensure its “cooperation” with Duterte brings about an “immediate end to the killings associated to the ‘anti-drugs’ campaign, the reform of drug policies to bolster evidence-based harm reduction, the end of compulsory detention for drug use, and rights-based drug treatment—among others.”

    “If this effort at technical assistance does not deliver a clear and significant improvement of the human rights situation soon, the Human Rights Council will need to follow up with the establishment of an international, impartial, and credible investigation on the human rights violations.”


    Photograph of the United Nations General Assembly hall by Basil D Soufi via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

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