Extrajudicial Killings And Human Rights Abuses In The Philippines: What Can Australia Do?

In previous weeks, I have discussed the human rights concerns over the ‘war on drugs’ in the Philippines, and how Australia can improve its own human rights record. This report will build on and converge these ideas to investigate how Australia can advocate for and improve human rights in Southeast Asia, using the current human rights abuses in the Philippines as an example.

Why do regional human rights issues concern Australia?

Respect for human rights is essential for functioning democracies, preventing conflict, and peacebuilding. Violations of human rights, and the conflict which generally accompanies violations, no longer has simply intra-state effects. More than ever, human rights abuses and conflicts spill over and threaten regional stability and security, even where nations do not share land-borders. This happens economically and through the global contemporary issue of refugees.

Australia has a vested interest in peace, security, and prosperity in Southeast Asia. The serious allegations of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, therefore, concerns Australia. It is in Australia’s interests to take a clear stance in opposition to the violations, exercise reasonable and available measures that push for their cessation, and persist in promoting the multilateral development of human rights protections in Southeast Asian.

Amnesty International and the International Criminal Court have previously expressed concern that the situation in the Philippines may involve crimes against humanity. Under international criminal law, when a nation-state is unable or unwilling to protect its population from such grave crimes, it is up to the international community to take up the mantle and act in order to protect at-risk populations from human rights abuses. Given the close involvement of the Philippine government and authorities – there is substantial evidence to suggest that the extrajudicial killings are in fact of the direct orders of President Rodrigo Duterte – it is unlikely that the Philippines will fulfill its primary responsibility to protect.

As a result, the international community must act. The Prosecutorial Office of the ICC is closely monitoring the situation, and Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has noted that preliminary investigations into the situation may begin. However, the ICC form of justice is cumbersome and relies on a certain level of cooperation by the Philippines.

This does little to advance the immediate needs of the largely poor population of the Philippines that are targeted and suffering under Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’, which in just nine months has claimed about 8,000 lives. A more immediate impact could be had if states such as Australia and the United States leveraged their strong relationships with the Philippines and exercised diplomatic pressure. This could be done by states like Australia taking a leadership role in a multilateral response to the issue, and/or acting within the scope of their bilateral relations.

What can and should Australia do?

The first step is for Australia to strongly and clearly condemn the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines and the violence-inciting rhetoric of President Rodrigo Duterte. It is unclear whether human rights were discussed in a recent meeting in Mindanao between Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and President Duterte.

According to Bishop, she “conveyed Australian and international concerns with respect to extra-judicial killings and spoke of the importance we attach to human rights and the rule-of-law.”

In complete contradiction, however, Duterte said, “We never discussed human rights…Because if you say that, if you utter those things in my presence, you’ll get an insult. So what we did was to discuss transnational crimes, terrorism.”

Following public condemnation, Australia should seek to act multilaterally, through ASEAN and/or the UN Human Rights Council, to address the situation. This adds legitimacy and strength to any measures taken against the Philippines and insulates Australia against negative bilateral Australian-Philippine relations. Australia could, and should, however, take a leadership role in multilateral action against the Philippines.

Despite the human rights infrastructure under ASEAN being infant and relatively weak, extrajudicial killings in the Philippines violates numerous principles under the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which largely echo international legal standards on, among other things, the right to life, liberty and security, and freedom from arbitrary arrest, search, detention and abduction. Principle 39 of the Declaration provides for cooperation between the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights and other regional and international institutions and organization towards achieving these rights standards.

Whilst not a full member of ASEAN, Australia has a strong relationship with the body from which to advocate for realization of human rights standards. Having non-membership status, but maintaining a strong dialogue and relationship with ASEAN, positions Australia well to advocate in a region of glass-houses on human rights, and within an organization where member-states seem reluctant to throw the first stone.

Frequent and high-level engagement helps to advance a range of mutual interests between ASEAN and Australia. Whilst to date the dialogue has been largely limited to economic matters, there is scope for Australia to use its regional aid program to ASEAN to promote human rights, demonstrated by recent initiatives supporting women’s economic empowerment and leadership. Australia should use and extend its regional aid program to promote the rule of law and human rights in the Philippines, and Southeast Asia more broadly, as part of a human rights-based approach to development. Australia should also advocate for the alignment of human rights standards under the ASEAN Declaration to international standards, and a restructure of the Commission that prevents politics and lack of consensus from frustrating accountability.

Under the ASEAN-Australia Comprehensive Partnership (2015-2019), a key commitment of the leaders was to promote the rule of law, democracy, good governance, and human rights. This involves consultation and collaboration between governments, dialogue between the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the Australian Human Rights Commission, supporting promotion and protection of human rights within ASEAN, and providing technical assistance to support programs and projects for vulnerable groups. These efforts must be acknowledged, and their further exploration and implementation are encouraged.

Australia should also encourage regional cooperation with standards and procedures of the UN Human Rights Council. To date, Australia has often ignored or sidestepped confronting human rights abuses in Southeast Asia, especially when they concern countries with which Australia has a close trade or border protection relationship, such as the Philippines. With Australia seeking a seat on the Human Rights Council from 2018-20, a strong response to the human rights abuses in the Philippines will bolster its bid and its standing as a champion of human rights. Australia can assume a greater role in the Council by leading and sponsoring engagement procedures of the UNHRC in the Philippines as a country of concern, including providing on the ground technical assistance.

If Australia cannot act multilaterally, it should employ reasonable and graduating measures, including targeted sanctions if necessary, to ensure human rights are respected in the Philippines. Australia has a 70-year strong bilateral relationship with the Philippines, which includes preferential trade terms, substantial humanitarian assistance, and longstanding defence agreements. Such a strong relationship should be grounded in frank dialogue, even (perhaps especially) when the issues are difficult and in a topical arena – human rights – which often provokes cultural relativist arguments and tensions about sovereignty.

Through human rights grants and NGO funding, Australia has a history of and capacity to directly contribute to human rights projects and initiatives in the Philippines. In November 2015, Australia and the Philippines jointly signed a “comprehensive partnership” agreement, which purportedly grounds the relationship “in shared values of democracy, respect for human rights and adherence to the rule of law”. As such, there is supposedly agreement on the importance of human rights between the countries, and Australia has significant leverage. It must exercise greater pressure to hold the Duterte government accountable to these commitments.

Lucas Hafey