Sanctions On Philippine Trade Perks Over Degenerating Human Rights Violations – Is The EU Only Invoking The Ghosts Of Colonization?

In a September 17 resolution, the European Parliament pushed for immediate trade sanctions against the Philippines in response to the Duterte administration’s deteriorating human rights violations. Citing the reinstatement of the death penalty, LGBT and indigenous people’s human rights abuses, and the reinstatement of private and state0backed paramilitary groups, the E.P. called on the European Commission to ‘immediately initiate the procedure which could lead to the temporary withdrawal of GSP+ (Generalized Scheme of Preference Plus).’ This revocation denies the Philippines the ability to export 6,200 products tariff-free to the 27 EU member states. As VP Leni Robredo has warned, this could lead to the loss of up to 200,000 jobs on top of the economic crisis the Philippines is facing due to the pandemic.

The Duterte administration slammed the threats as ‘abusive’ and ‘too much,’ accusing the EU of ‘being too personal.’ Interior Secretary Eduardo Año announced that he will ‘personally ensure’ that the government will effectively debunk claims of human rights violations, insisting that ‘it has never been a policy of this government and the Philippine National Police to violate human rights, much more (condone) extrajudicial killings.’ Moreover, he denied Human Rights Watch’s data citing that drug-war linked deaths have risen amidst the pandemic, adding to the government’s repeated denials and dismissals of the ‘allegations from critics, leftist groups, from human rights groups.’ In a more aggressive response, Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque dared the ‘former colonial masters’ to ‘go ahead and let them watch as the Filipino people suffer’ during a pandemic – ‘they will be the biggest contributor to the violation of the right to live in the Philippines.’

While well-intentioned, indiscriminate, and comprehensive sanctions such as this have harsh consequences for the economy and civilians – especially the population who will bear the brunt. Although playing the ‘human rights discourse’ card is already problematic and elusive, especially with its selective conditionalities targeting the geographic South, the international community should continue to promote human rights. Alternatives to the current sanctioning agenda – which is already failing to compel observance of a Western framework that unquestionably does not resonate with the Duterte administration (and as seen, misses its target)  at the price of civilians’ livelihoods – must be considered.

Considering the Duterte administration’s blatant disregard for multilateral institutions, on top of its ‘sovereign immunity’ argument, the EU’s goal of coercing such a government to show substantial improvement in their human rights record is unrealistic. At the worst, they need to fill an unemployment vacuum will just force the Philippines into the arms of alternative trade partners. On what grounds can a Western institution such as the EU substantiate its legitimacy when it allegedly takes measures in the interests of civilians who will suffer the brunt of such sanctions? In this benevolent attempt, perhaps the EU is only invoking the ghosts of colonization.

Perhaps targeted sanctions aimed at political figures (such as the 2014 EU and US sanctions on Putin’s allies) would be more productive, as it is a small set of individuals in the Duterte administration who wield the power to either mitigate or exacerbate the human rights situation in the country – not the entire population. As detained opposition senator Leila De Lima stated on Saturday in response to the Duterte administration’s feedback, Duterte ‘would rather continue killing Filipinos thank to keep the trade benefits.’ And as Jerzy Urban, spokesman of Poland’s 1980s military regime said, ‘The government will always feed itself.’ But can the people do the same?