Law groups to U.N. expert: Probe Duterte threats vs judiciary

MANILA, Philippines – Various law groups on Wednesday, April 18, urged a United Nations (UN) expert to investigate President Rodrigo Duterte's actions and statements against the Philippine judiciary.

In a report sent to Diego Garcia Sayan, UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, the law groups accused the Duterte administration of disregarding the independence of the judiciary and the role of lawyers.

"The purpose of the communication is to relay to the UN the recent events in our country which we believe will impact negatively on the independence of judges and lawyers," Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) national president Abdiel Fajardo said.

The IBP is joined in the appeal by the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers (NUPL), Alternative Law Groups (ALG), Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC), Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), Manananggol Laban sa EJKs (Manlaban), and the International Pro Bono Alliance (IPBA), among others.

They cited efforts to undermine the judiciary, including the bid to unseat Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, connecting human rights lawyers to drug lords, and the inclusion of lawyers in the list of alleged terrorists.

"Such jeopardizes the very essence of democracy in the Philippines, particularly the matter of checks and balances," Fajardo said.

According to NUPL chairperson Neri Colmenares, Duterte's recent statement that he is an enemy of the embattled Sereno can have a chilling effect on judges across the Philippines.

"So when there's a case challenging an anti-people policy of Duterte, judges will be afraid to rule against the policy. So it's not only an attack on the CJ, but on the entire judicial profession," Colmenares said. 

Judicial independence

An independent judiciary is crucial in a democracy and for the protection of human rights.

According to law professor Tony La Viña of Manlaban, the battle for justice amid the huge number of deaths in Duterte's anti-drug campaign calls for lawyers and judges who will not cower.

The chilling effect from the President's tirades, however, may prove detrimental to the cause.

"To solve the problem of extrajudicial killings, an independent judiciary is essential," La Viña said. "But if we are threatened and the courts are threatened, we will not be able to stop EJKs."

With a political climate that is "eroding and stifled," AHRC executive director Arpee Santiago said the role of dissent as a matter of public policy is being reduced to nothing.

"Being able to debate on policies that affect our lives is the heart of democracy," he said.

"And now, institutions that are actively attacked are the judiciary and the legal profession as a whole, meaning the lawyers that defend the welfare of the marginalized, the poor, the voiceless."

'Not an attack'

Malacañang, however, said the President is not attacking the judiciary.

In a statement on Wednesday, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said Duterte's remarks against Sereno only show his "dislike" of her, and not of the institution she leads.

"For the longest time, the President has been silent about the issue, notwithstanding the allegations made by CJ Sereno against the Chief Executive in many public fora saying the latter is behind her impeachment. The President's statement on the CJ impeachment is thus a reaction to these accusations," Roque said.

"The President's rebuke of the Chief Justice must therefore be taken as a dislike of the Chief Justice and not an attack to the judiciary or an affront to judicial independence," he added.

Roque also maintained that the call for Sereno's impeachment "did not originate from" Malacañang.

Possible probe

If the UN special rapporteur deems the law groups' appeal as valid, he can start an investigation into the situation in the Philippines. His office can tap local groups and also the national authorities to get a clear picture of what's happening. (READ: What are the roles of United Nations special rapporteurs?)

 

According to Colmenares, the output of an investigation would include recommendations to the government. The UN special rapporteur can also bring the issue to the UN Human Rights Council. 

"Lahat ng reports and findings ng UN special rapporteur ay may impact sa international community (All of the reports and findings of UN experts have an impact on the international community)," Colmenares said. "It will have a very big impact on the Duterte administration."

The International Criminal Court (ICC) can even use the possible UN findings in its proceedings, Colmenares added.

But can the UN expert expect cooperation given the Duterte administration's stance against international probes?

"If the government wants the truth to come out and it's on their side, dapat wala na itago (there should be nothing to hide)," Santiago said. "The special rapporteur isn't a political figure. Ang nakasalalay ay ang reputation niya bilang independent expert (What's at stake is his reputation as an independent expert)."

La Viña, meanwhile, hopes that Duterte will not denounce Garcia Sayan, in the same way that the President has threatened Agnes Callamard, also a UN special rapporteur. – Rappler.com

Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.

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