Philippines’ Major Setback as Abolitionist Leader in South-East Asia
In 2006, the Philippines abolished the death penalty for all crimes. A year later, the country gained the reputation of a regional leader in the campaign against death penalty for being the first South-East Asian country to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.
More than a decade later, this reputation is on shaky ground following President Duterte’s election in May 2016 and his determination to reintroduce the death penalty as one of his major campaign promises. The intention was made clear again, more recently, as he called for death penalty for drugs-related offenses and plunder in his State of the Nation address in July 2019.
Legislator’s Second Attempt
In 2017, the Philippine House of Representatives voted to reintroduce the death penalty for serious drug-related offenses. The move was later stalled in the Senate, but the second attempt to pass the bill has resurfaced in November 2019. Since then, 19 bills to re-introduce death penalty have been filed in the 18th Philippine Congress for drug trafficking and other related offenses, plunder, and trafficking in persons. Coupled with the fact that the majority of the current Senators are president’s allies, the bills now have bigger likelihood to pass the Congress, whose session has restarted since 20 January 2019.
There is, however, a strong local resistance to prevent the adoption of the bills. The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) of the Philippines and FLAG Anti-Death Penalty Task Force are such examples. In 2018, CHR came up with a national survey highlighting that only 33% or less respondents in the country demand the death penalty for crimes related to illegal drugs. The study is the first of its kind in the country and it serves as an argument against the popularity of the death penalty, as claimed by the government.
More recently, the Commissioner of CHR marked the 17th World Day Against Death Penalty by recalling Philippines’ commitment to OP2 ICCPR, the impact of death penalty on children whose parents have been sentenced to death, and the need to uphold the right to life. On the same day, FLAG Task Force hold a National Congress Against Death Penalty inviting significant members of House of Representatives, Senators, and police officers among others. Both events gained significant media coverage that echoed the domestic voices against capital punishment.
As a state party to the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, Philippines have signed up for commitment to abolish death penalty and is prohibited from reintroducing death penalty in the future. Reinstating the death penalty would be a serious breach of international law.
Among those scrutiny are the High Commissioner for Human Rights in its open letter to Philippines in 2016 and the UN Human Rights Committee which adopted General Comment No. 36 in 2018 that eliminates any legal doubt that indeed, abolitionist state parties to ICCPR are barred from reintroducing death penalty. In July 2019, the UN Human Rights Council added urgency to the resistance by adopting a Resolution on Promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines. Now the OHCHR is to prepare a report on the human rights situation in the country, which, as the time of its writing, is calling for submissions until 31 January 2020.
The likelihood that the Philippines will experience a major setback despite having committed to international human rights obligation and was known as regional leader for abolitionist movement, shows that the path after abolition is not always linear nor definite.