Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of social and human rights issues in the Philippines.
My Lords, the Philippine islands have some 107 million people. They also have a high level of poverty. Some authorities say that 16 million people are in serious poverty and 6 million in extreme poverty, often in shanty towns. The Philippine Statistics Authority gives a poverty level of 20%. Those facts, combined with a high birth rate, unemployment and little social welfare, force many to seek work overseas. That affects all levels of skill, from graduates to nurses or seamen and domestic workers, as we know from experience in London. Indeed, without the money that 10 million or more expatriates send home, the balance of payments would be in serious trouble.
These problems have existed for many years. They bear harshly on the poorest children, who exist on low-quality rice, with few vegetables and little salt. Children witness violence and sexual activity from an early age. It is therefore not surprising that many live by their wits on the streets, sniff glue or join gangs. They are wide open to all kinds of exploitation and can be arrested for being homeless. The law demands that children under arrest be kept separate from adults. In practice, alas, that provision is not always respected, even in the capital city.
An extreme concentration of wealth lies behind urbanisation, poverty and injustice. Some 1,000 or more people are said to own 70% of the nation’s wealth. Not only do these people enjoy great luxury but they own or control most of the media. This, with the help of some judicious bribery and intimidation, enables a small number of people to sway voting in elections. The result is that direct taxation remains low and the light regulation allows big companies, including internationals, to do very much what they want. Transparency International has placed the Philippines among the most unequal and corrupt countries in the world. Research by Oxfam in 2018 showed that 82% of new wealth generated in the previous year benefited just 1% of the world’s population. I imagine that those figures reflect conditions in the Philippines. I hope that other speakers today will underline the need for social justice.
Both rich and poor in the islands contribute to the demand for illegal drugs and substances. The Government, being aware of the harm that drug abuse undoubtedly causes, have declared a war on drugs. Since May 2016, President Duterte has encouraged a shoot-to-kill policy by both police and vigilantes. Arrests are therefore not made, but drug dealers and pushers are shot on mere suspicion, without charge, trial or any process at all. The Philippine Daily Inquirer gave the rather precise figure for the number of deaths arising of 22,360. In February 2018 Senator Antonio Trillanes put the death toll a little lower at 20,000. The President’s role in these killings is now the subject of a preliminary inquiry by the International Criminal Court. Have our diplomatic staff tried to assess how this war on drugs has worked in practice? Has the street price of illegal drugs risen, or is the supply largely unaffected? Is the rehabilitation of addicts and users being effectively addressed? There are issues of health in addition to those of criminal justice; for example, if the price of drugs rises, there is the temptation to dilute them with other unhealthy substances and still charge the same price. The bad consequences can be imagined.
I turn from the war on drugs to the death penalty in criminal justice. In June 2006 the parliament abolished capital punishment. The Philippines then ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with its second optional protocol. No doubt Her Majesty’s Government strongly approve of that measure. Since then, however, there have been efforts to bring back the death penalty. For instance, in March 2017, the House of Representatives approved a Bill for that purpose. This was despite a warning by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that reintroduction would breach the Philippines’ international obligations. Are Her Majesty’s Government willing and able to discuss the administration of justice in the islands at all levels, especially as it affects poor and voiceless people? I note in particular that last August the Foreign Office Minister, the right honourable Mark Field, called on the Philippines to observe international rules and regretted its intention to leave the International Criminal Court. Has this yet happened and has the proposal been discussed in, for example, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations?
I think we all acknowledge that the right to life is the most precious of all rights, yet the International Federation of Journalists reported that 146 journalists were murdered in the Philippines between 1986 and early 2018. That is almost five a year. Clergy and human rights defenders have also suffered extrajudicial killing or disappearance, especially when exercising their freedom of expression.
As regards prisons, the New York Times has twice lately recorded extreme overcrowding and bad conditions. These were confirmed this month by a fuller report from Oxfam. Will Her Majesty’s Government ask for diplomats to be able to make unannounced visits to prisons and juvenile holding centres? Incidentally and ironically, the latter are called “houses of hope”. Can the Minister give your Lordships any detail on whether the Minister for Asia and the Pacific received credible and satisfying replies on these issues when he visited Manila or at sessions of the UN Human Rights Council? The most serious point is the independent investigation of extrajudicial killings. Has this yet started?
As regards employment and the economy, the UK Prosperity Fund has been making small grants to prepare for larger programmes to increase employment and establish minimum wages and conditions. Can the Minister report progress on that?
If there is no improvement on these clearly defined issues within a reasonable time, will the Government apply individual personal sanctions on identified corrupt persons? I suggest that these should include the 17 mayors in Metro Manila and perhaps elsewhere who fail in their duty to provide proper protection for arrested children. Another category might be internet service providers which fail to comply with the law requiring filters against child pornography.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who will speak in this debate. I look forward to listening to their speeches and to the Government’s reply.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, on securing this short debate. When President Duterte took office, it was on the back of a campaign in which, as the noble Lord said, he swore to launch a war on the drugs and violence which threatened the stability of the state—but what followed was the use of policies that are contrary to human rights.
The Foreign Office says that in his first year in office Duterte launched a controversial anti-drugs campaign with a call to citizens and the police to conduct extrajudicial killings of suspects. Earlier this month Human Rights Watch reported that, according to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, nearly 5,000 suspected drug users and dealers died during police operations from July 2016 to September 2018—but that does not include the thousands of others who have been killed by unidentified gunmen. Masked gunmen appear to be taking part in killings, working closely with the police, casting doubt on government claims that most killings have been committed by vigilantes or drug gangs.
Police have killed dozens of children since the start of the war on drugs—deaths which the President has dismissed as merely “collateral damage”. Children’s rights are being undermined. I shall give two examples. In June last year the PDEA announced that it was seeking to impose annual unannounced drug screening tests on teachers and on children from the age of 10. However, imposing drug testing on schoolchildren when the Philippine police are routinely killing alleged drug users endangers children should they fail that drug test. Mandatory testing may not only infringe their human rights but deter them from attending school for reasons entirely unrelated to any drug use. Street-connected children are especially at risk. I have learned more about this as one of the co-chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Street Children.
The second matter of concern is the plan to reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12. Over the past week, the Philippine Congress agreed to this provision in a Bill that amends the juvenile justice law, despite previously saying that it would not do so. Originally, it approved a reduction to nine years of age, but that was amended just yesterday to 12 and is likely to become law fairly very soon. Such a change, while not as damaging as reducing the age to nine, would still be a step backwards in terms of human rights in the Philippines. I am fully aware that we have questions in this country, as well as in Scotland and Northern Ireland, about our own age of criminal responsibility.
I am not naive about the role that can be played by children in drug trafficking and violence when they have been manipulated by the barons of the drug gangs. However, the policies used by the President are simply not the solution. The answers lie in policies to protect children, support social cohesion and tackle the adult offenders who trap children in a life of crime.
The work of NGOs such as Bahay Tuluyan, which aims to improve government agency rescue practices for street children, is important. I also congratulate our embassy in Manila on raising concerns on such issues with the Philippine Government. But will the UK Government raise the treatment of street-connected children as a human rights concern at the next meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March? Given the clear human rights violations already involved in extrajudicial killings and the disregard already displayed for the human rights of children, will the Government now consider making the Philippines a “country of concern” in this year’s annual report?
My Lords, the Philippines is an almost magical country with wonderful people, but it suffers from some of the worst inequality and probably the most significant extreme weather events—and it has also suffered in recent decades from conflict. Those things make it one of the most difficult places in the world in which to live. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for securing this debate and I look forward to hearing the answers to the many questions that he has, rightly, posed.
I want to add two further questions. The first relates to the Rappler news organisation. The Rappler news website and the organisation that works behind the scenes to produce the news content are outstanding, fair and scrupulous, but the organisation has been under constant attack over recent months and years. The director, Maria Ressa, is an outstanding journalist and was recently internationally recognised as such. I would be interested to know what the UK Government have done to make representations on behalf of the free press in the Philippines and to ensure that government attacks on Rappler are ended.
My second question relates to the conflict in Mindanao in the southern Philippines. President Duterte is an extremely controversial individual. I share many of the concerns about his actions that have already been mentioned in your Lordships’ House and I look forward to hearing the Government’s response to those. However, if there is one area where he has made progress, it is the peace agreement that had stalled. This agreement was reached in 2014 between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the then Government of the Philippines.
Just this week we see referenda taking place in the Bangsamoro area in Muslim Mindanao to secure, it is hoped, the establishment of a devolved authority in that part of the Philippines, with a laying down of arms by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and its thousands of fighters, and with the Government recognising that autonomy is the way forward for that area economically, socially and politically. Even today it is speculated that Cotabato City, which is the capital of the region but was never in the old administrative region, might even have voted against the advice of its mayor for the peace agreement and for this devolution.
There is perhaps, at long last, hope in that one part of the Philippines. I would be interested to know what actions the Government are taking to help build the peace in that area, where, for example, young girls are three times more likely to leave primary school early than they are in even the poorest parts of the rest of the Philippines.
Back in 2014, 2015 and 2016, the United Kingdom, with colleagues from Northern Ireland, the UK Government and Scotland, was involved in supporting the process of peace through devolution. I would be interested to know what the Government will be doing to try to help build the peace following the referenda to ensure the stable establishment of devolved authority that can give some hope to the people of Muslim Mindanao, help resist the occasional encroachment by Islamic State and other groups which are trying to get a foothold in that part of south-east Asia, and provide the educational and economic opportunities that the people in that part of the Philippines have been missing for far too long.
My Lords, I want to talk about a very brave and remarkable lady, Senator Leila de Lima, a 59 year-old Filipina law professor. She was chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights between 2008 and 2010, and was then appointed Secretary of Justice by the Liberal President, Benigno Aquino. In 2012, in that capacity, she carried out an inquiry into extrajudicial killings in Davao City, where Roderigo Duterte was at that time mayor. She also saw to it that the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by certain drug lords in prison was abruptly terminated.
De Lima was elected a senator in 2016 and campaigned against the draconian anti-drug policies of Duterte, now the incoming President. She said:
“We cannot wage the war against drugs with blood”.
Duterte responded that he would “destroy her in public”. In February 2017, Senator de Lima was arrested on the word of the drug lords she had upset and was held in prison without bail. The drug lords, unsurprisingly, were themselves released from prison. Last August, after 18 months, she was finally charged with one count of drug trafficking. Typically, she refused to plead, telling the judge that the charge was,
“pure invention, a fabrication … a sham”.
However, prison did not silence her. In a flow of statements, published last year in her book Dispatches from Crame 1, she condemned Duterte’s war on drugs and its increasing death toll. She attacked Duterte’s kow-towing to Chinese interests over the militarised artificial islands that China has created in the South China Sea and the fishing grounds and oil reserves of the Spratly Islands. Philippine sovereignty was upheld against China by the UN Arbitral Tribunal in 2016. Duterte was, Senator de Lima declared, China’s lackey. I quote from her book:
“Why be shy now, Mr. President? Show your billions. Or are they already safe in China for safekeeping, while you sell our islands and the patrimony of this country to the Chinese?”
Those were brave words for a woman in custody.
Following Duterte’s declaration of martial law on the island of Mindanao in 2017, she exploded:
“He brags about all the people he killed and had killed. He goes on television and tells cops to commit more killings. He curses at and disrespects people and institutions just because they ask him to respect the law and deliver justice ... he jokes about allowing soldiers to get away with raping women. The more, the better … Who says”,
our brave men and women of the armed forces,
“want a pass for committing sexual assaults and other animal-like behaviour?”
Amnesty International described Senator de Lima as a “prisoner of conscience” and gave her the title of Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender. The European Parliament called for her release. In July last, Liberal International awarded her the Prize for Freedom.
Duterte declares that he wants her to “rot in jail”. As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, who is to be congratulated on securing this debate, said, Duterte is personally under investigation by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. But he warned the ICC prosecutor that he will have her arrested if she sets foot in the Philippines. He has attempted on his own personal initiative, without the consent of Parliament, to pull the Philippines out of the ICC jurisdiction. The cases continues.
Senator de Lima wrote earlier this week:
“Because of Duterte’s madness, suspected drug offenders who don’t get to have a day in the court—including women and children—and the rights activists and church leaders who defend them, are becoming more and more vulnerable to intimidations, attacks, and killings”.
Yesterday, she was before the court again on yet another pre-trial hearing and gave a feisty press conference on the steps of the court, surrounded by her prison guards. I am sure that she can be assured of the full support of this House.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Hylton on securing this debate. No one in this House needs persuading of his long-standing and tenacious commitment to human rights. It is characteristic of him not to have lost sight of the plight of suffering Filipinos. I hope the Minister will respond to the recommendations that he has made, and particularly to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, that the Philippines should be officially designated as a country of concern. That would be a positive outcome of today’s debate.
I have a non-pecuniary interest as a trustee of the Arise Foundation, an anti-slavery charity with a brilliant team that does superb work in various countries of origin for trafficked people, including the Philippines.
In addition to the human rights abuses in the Philippines itself, we would do well to remember the many thousands of Filipinos working abroad who suffer exploitation. I was shocked when I first learned that over 10% of the entire GDP of the Filipino economy is remitted back to the Philippines from abroad from an estimated 2.3 million overseas Filipino workers. The principal countries of destination are: Saudi Arabia, which takes 25.4% of these workers; the UAE, 15.3%, Hong Kong, 6.5%; and Qatar, 5.5%.
I know from work by the Arise Foundation that many of these Filipinos are exploited and enslaved in unimaginably cruel and inhumane conditions. I go so far as to say that the stories of Filipina women enslaved in the Middle East are the most extreme and unrepeatable I have ever heard. The situation is Qatar is so bad that the Philippine embassy has a rescue shelter attached to it which is reportedly always full. Can the Minister tell us whether the dire and well-documented human rights conditions of Filipino overseas workers in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar feature in our discussions with the respective Governments?
While considering the difficulties faced by Filipinos abroad, we also need to look closer to home. Even if they find work, there is no guarantee that they can remit their earnings back to their families. What measures are in place to ensure that companies do not charge unfair and exorbitant fees to transfer money home? During the passage of the modern slavery legislation, my noble friend Lord Hylton and I divided your Lordships’ House on the issue of domestic migrant labour. Many Filipinos are tricked by unscrupulous employment agencies who prey on their hopes for a better life. Some take on huge debts to pay unaffordable agency fees which have to be paid back once work has begun—a well-worn pattern leading to debt bondage in the destination country.
The UK is a significant destination for Filipinos seeking employment as domestic workers; sadly, the Philippines is never far down the list of source nations for modern slavery victims of our own national referral mechanism. What are we doing to disrupt the unethical recruitment corridor that clearly exists between the Philippines and the UK? The United Kingdom has a memorandum of understanding with the Government of the Philippines to enable the recruitment of nurses and other health professionals. In 2018 the number of Philippines-born workers in the National Health Service was 15,400. What guarantees can the Minister give that our recruitment methods are ethical and respect the communities from which these workers are sourced?
Arise works with front-line charities in the Philippines which continue to do superb work in difficult circumstances. Many of them have stood bravely against Duterte’s Administration, as described so powerfully and so well by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, a few moments ago. Unfortunately, bilateral funding for work such as theirs has decreased due to lack of confidence in that Government. Many of the charities working in the Philippines are struggling for support. I hope the Minister will assure us that, in allocating UK aid, we will not make the mistake of conflating worthy front-line work with a wayward Government, and will not falter in our commitment to the wonderful Filipino people.
My Lords, my 45 year-old half-niece, Aurora Moynihan, lay dead on a sidewalk in Manila, her body riddled with multiple gunshot wounds. Her killers, a single cell of the many death squads—including, it is alleged, off-duty Filipino policemen—left her body propped in a slumped seated position on the pavement. Around her neck they had hung a scribbled handwritten sign reading, “Pusher to the celebrities, you’re next”, before driving off off in search of more victims. She had a right to life and a right to accountability before the courts. This happened in the early hours of Sunday morning, 11 September 2016. President Duterte had been in office just three months. His personal war on drugs continues relentlessly today as he publicly encourages civilians and the police to avoid the courts and kill addicts; he has said he will not prosecute police for extrajudicial executions. Aurora was another victim; with the official death toll now over 20,000, as we have heard, he urges his death squads to continue the killing.
There is free reign to kill in the streets, free reign to settle unrelated scores and free reign to destroy any semblance of the rule of law in the Philippines. I do not ask my noble friend the Minister to intervene solely on Aurora’s behalf. Dialogue and tough, harsh words, with appropriate diplomatic initiatives, as proposed by my noble friend Lady Anelay, will one day help resolve this crisis. It has, after all, been in the making since Alf Dubs MP—as he was then—and I headed to Mindanao in September 1983, a two-man delegation on behalf of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights, to write our report on the serious human rights violations occurring in the Philippines.
Action is now needed by our Government because this form of so-called government by Duterte is unacceptable. But far more importantly, I ask my colleagues in this House, every time they walk through Peers’ Entrance, to reflect on the need to do these things: to nurture and strengthen the institutional framework of democracy—a system of government under increasing threat around the world; to use our influence, however limited that may be; to take every opportunity to challenge the rising forces of nationalism and populism; to react to the pervasive power of social media and fake news, which can shake the foundations of the rule of law, as they do in the Philippines; and to recognise that we live in a world where leaders are operating outside the rules, from Salisbury in Wiltshire to the streets of Manila, where the right to life is under threat, where powerful countries prop up corrupt regimes in Africa and where, if we do not react, we leave a desolate landscape behind us.
There is nothing more important to us than upholding the rule of law and the checks and balances which provide essential protection for all our human rights and from which democratic institutions and the rule of law are nurtured. Aurora had British as well as Filipino nationality. Her father, my half-brother, for all his faults, once sat and spoke frequently in your Lordships’ House. The wracked body of a beautiful woman in her prime has become a symbol of the necessity of constraining power and of the right to life, of the need to fight the rising forces of corrupt systems of abusive government practised in the guise of populism, with its lack of governance and failure to provide a central role for an independent judiciary. No one, including Duterte, should be above the law. No leader should override the rule of law, with vigilantes emptying bullet chambers at will as they continue to do, night by night, throughout the Philippines.
My Lords, from all the powerful interventions that we have heard so far, we can see the Philippines is an incredibly difficult place to be a child, especially those growing up in poverty. One of the brave bishops in the Philippines, Bishop Pablo David, in opposing lowering the age of criminal responsibility, said: “For what? For being born in an environment of abuse? For being neglected or abused by abusive parents and being left to fend for themselves out in the streets?” That is exactly what they are being punished for. How appalling.
I saw street children in context for myself on a visit some time ago to Manila, certainly as poor a place as I have ever been in the world, with the Inter-Parliamentary Union. We had a terribly memorable visit to Smokey Mountain, a 40-acre rubbish dump in Manila that is full of families and children searching for food. If they are lucky they have a shelter made of plastic and scrap wood. That is a really difficult context in which to work as an NGO, and recently the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Street Children—of which, like the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, I am a co-chair, and I am so glad that she has joined—heard from Melanny Siban, the co-ordinator of the mobile unit of Bahay Tuluyan, a unit that works with Philippine street children. She explained that one of the main aims of its work is to teach children to identify types of abuse and learn to protect themselves, so that they become aware of their rights and responsibilities and can identify the related parties in charge and exactly who they can ask for some help.
Bahay Tuluyan feels that the Philippines authorities’ approach towards street children alternates between a welfare approach, which of course we should be encouraging, and a repressive one. The drive to remove children from the streets should be for the children’s protection, but at other times it is justified by labelling them as delinquents. The police have introduced standards for community-based services and committed to building protective and caring environments for children at risk. It is still a theory, though, and the practice apparently remains much the same, with alarmingly high rates of violence during the so-called rescue process, both when they are being removed from the streets and when they are detained in the government facilities, which are severely overcrowded.
I join the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, in thinking about calling for the country to be designated as a country of concern, but I also highlight my disappointment and anger that when Dr Liam Fox went to the Philippines in April 2017 he talked about hoping to do more trade based on our “shared values”. There is no value that I could share with the President as described today.
I hope that the brave people of the Philippines who are standing up, as outlined by my noble friend Lord Thomas, will continue to be able to express themselves. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, on securing this important debate.
My Lords, I applaud my noble friend Lord Hylton for tabling this debate and very much endorse his comments. I shall focus on extrajudicial killings in order not to repeat what others have said.
As others have indicated, extrajudicial killings have become the norm. I believe President Duterte aims to kill some 30,000 people thought to have a drug problem because he thinks this will eliminate that problem. Along with the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, I welcome the fact that our embassy in Manila has intervened on this issue, and it is reassuring to note the comments of our Minister of State, Mark Field, but surely as a major trading partner with the Philippines we have considerable leverage over President Duterte. What action has already been taken to consider reducing our trade with the Philippines? What discussions are taking place now to use our leverage to change some of the most appalling policies of the regime?
Apart from these killings being utterly immoral and reprehensible, we know that harsh prohibitionist policies simply do not work to reduce drug use. The most respected academics in this field have shown clearly that such policies are likely to have the short-term effect of driving up drug prices and reducing use, but that within a few years the market stabilises at the level that it was at prior to the introduction of the prohibitionist policies. Professor Reuter and Professor Pollack found “zero evidence” that such tactics are effective in reducing drug use. The assumption in the Philippines that all one has to do is murder enough people and the trade in drugs will stop and shift to something else is simply wrong.
As we know, the ambition of the global war on drugs, initiated by the UN Convention on Drugs of 1961 and taken up strongly by President Nixon, was the global elimination of drugs. President Duterte needs to examine the history of drug policy. Human beings have always used mind-altering drugs. Hunters and gatherers knew perfectly well which berries to pick to give them a nice little high. Since 1961, far from reducing the level of drug use, across the globe the tough 1961 UN convention has been accompanied by an unprecedented increase in drug use across the world. Drug policies all over the world have failed due to a lack of sensible objectives or evidence of which policies would best achieve those objectives.
Thankfully, the world is going to change on this issue. At the 2016 UNGASS, important change was achieved at the UN level, partly as a result of the ceaseless pressure from experts, parliamentarians and non-governmental organisations across the world. The deputy director of the UNODC declared at the UN meeting that evidence-based public health drug policy was here to stay. When for more than half a century global drug policy had been driven by prejudice and moral judgments—like those in the Philippines—rather than hard-headed evidence, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the UN shift. Member states are now encouraged to be clear about our policy objectives, which are surely to reduce addiction, crime, violence and corruption, and how to achieve them. President Duterte needs to be made aware, ideally by our own Ministers, of the UN position on this issue and just how wrong his policies are, even on his own terms.
Whatever the failings of our own policies, and I have to say they are far from perfect, we uphold the rule of law and did away with the death penalty in 1965. We can therefore take the moral high ground. I hope the Minister will give the House an assurance that our Government will be taking up this issue at UN level and will bring our full weight to bear on President Duterte.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for initiating this all-too-short debate. We have been able to encompass a wide range of issues, not least the inequality and poverty, which he and my noble friend mentioned, in a country rich with really good people. That is what makes this whole situation so awful.
Human Rights Watch’s latest world report focuses on Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, which has now expanded nationwide. As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, mentioned, the number of deaths is horrendous. The official figures are bad enough—5,000 in just over two years—but of course that is just the tip of the iceberg; there are far more going on. As Amnesty International has reported, there is evidence of increased threats, intimidation and violence against those expressing criticism of the Administration and Government of the Philippines. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, rightly highlighted the case of Senator Leila de Lima, Duterte’s most prominent critic, who has remained in jail since her arrest in February 2017 on trumped-up drug charges.
That is not all. In May, acting on a petition by the Philippine Government, the Supreme Court ousted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for her criticism of the “drug war” and other policies of the Administration. Duterte has also targeted the Catholic Church, which has criticised the drug war, accusing bishops of corruption and labelling most Filipino priests as homosexuals. In December he urged the public to kill “useless bishops” because,
“all they do is criticise”,
As we have heard, our Government have responded. Last August, while in Manila, Mark Field called for adherence to the rules-based international system and expressed regret at the decision by the Philippines to leave the International Criminal Court. At the UN Human Rights Council in September, the UK urged the Philippines to investigate killings associated with the war on drugs and to ensure the safety of land rights defenders. Field also confirmed in a response to a Written Question that the UK embassy, as noble Lords have mentioned, has raised concerns with senior officials and government figures, and has maintained regular contact with human rights groups.
These steps by our Government are welcome, but we also have to see whether a consistent message is being given to Duterte’s Administration. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned, we also have an operation by Liam Fox’s trade department to improve relations with that Administration. We also have Richard Graham MP, the Prime Minister’s trade envoy. I would like to know a little more about trade envoys and exactly what they are doing when they go around the world. When this particular trade envoy was in Manila after the referendum, he said:
“The opportunity for our own FTA with the Philippines is exciting”,
“The UK and the Philippines have such a strong relationship and let’s make it stronger”.
What steps are the Government taking to ensure there is a consistent message to Duterte and his Administration? Is briefing and advice being given to the trade department and to these trade envoys on the deteriorating human rights situation in the Philippines? I also hope the Minister will be able to tell us what we are doing to ensure these proposed trade agreements are consistent with international law and our international agreements to meet obligations on human rights.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for tabling this debate and for his eloquent contribution and comments, getting us off to a very good start. I thank all noble Lords for their helpful contributions.
As a number of noble Lords indicated, the human rights situation in the Philippines sadly has deteriorated over the last two and a half years since the election of President Duterte. Human rights defenders, including campaigners for economic, social and land rights, as well as members of the clergy and journalists, are subject to harassment, intimidation or violence. At least 39 human rights defenders or activists were killed in 2018—the third-highest number globally, according to Front Line Defenders.
President Duterte’s flagship policy, the so-called war on drugs, is a particular cause for concern. According to official figures, more than 5,000 people have been killed under the strategy since July 2016. Human rights groups suggest the figure could be much higher—as many as 24,000. The war on drugs also has serious social consequences, as many of your Lordships referred to. Rather than receiving treatment and rehabilitation, addicts are criminalised, their families stigmatised and, according to some reports, some have been abused by police officers. They also suffer economic hardship, adding to the already persistent problem of poverty that affects around one in five Filipinos, according to the Philippines Statistics Authority. This can leave many, including children, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, pointed out, vulnerable to general and sexual exploitation and to modern slavery. Indeed, the Global Slavery Index estimates that over 780,000 people live in modern slavery in the Philippines—one of the highest rates in the region.
Your Lordships will be aware that promoting and defending human rights is a fundamental part of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy. We are deeply concerned about the human rights situation in the Philippines, particularly the death toll associated with the war on drugs, the harassment and killing of human rights defenders and journalists, and the sexual exploitation of children. We take every opportunity to raise these concerns with the authorities in the Philippines, at their embassy here in London and in international fora. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that my right honourable friend the Minister for Asia, Mark Field, visited Manila in August. He raised with senior Philippine Ministers our concerns about the war on drugs and stressed the need for prompt, thorough and impartial investigations into all associated deaths.
The UK has made clear to the Philippine authorities our concerns about the human rights situation more broadly. We urge the Philippine Government to guarantee a safe environment for human rights defenders, journalists, land rights campaigners and other activists, and to ensure that any violence inflicted on them is thoroughly investigated. We reiterated these messages at the Human Rights Council in September. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to this and raised a very important matter. I think he used the phrase “consistency of message”, and I entirely agree with him. It is very important that the message the UK Government are delivering on human rights remains consistent and strong. It will be our endeavour to ensure that. We also reiterated these messages at the UK-Philippine high-level talks in Manila as recently as November.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, raised the specific matter of the International Criminal Court. My understanding is that, if the withdrawal is held valid by the Philippine high court, the Philippines will cease to be party to the ICC on 17 March 2019.
My noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns, in a characteristically powerful speech, raised two very important issues. She wondered whether the treatment of street-connected children would be raised as a human rights concern at the next meeting of the Human Rights Council in March. There is no doubt that children and minors are disproportionately affected in poor countries like the Philippines. Through our prosperity fund and other developmental funds, the UK Government provide programme support to the Philippines, aimed at assisting some of the most vulnerable in society and encouraging sustainable, inclusive growth. That will bring help to the Philippines, including to children, and we hope it will succeed in bringing families out of poverty. Her Majesty’s Government judges that the best way to support children in the Philippines is through continued collaboration on education and programmes that create conditions for inclusive growth. I reassure my noble friend that we will continue to raise our concerns regarding the Philippines in future Human Rights Council meetings, and the consistency of our message will not be lost.
My noble friend also spoke about making the Philippines a country of concern in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual human rights report. As I have indicated, we remain deeply concerned about the situation in the Philippines. It is not currently listed in the report as a human rights priority country, although the UK is, and has been, consistently active and vocal in promoting human rights in the Philippines, using our bilateral relationship to raise difficult topics at the highest level. Human rights priority countries are selected on the basis of publicly available criteria, and they usually remain so for the duration of a Parliament. In addition to the human rights priority countries, in each annual human rights report we feature countries, including the Philippines, in relevant thematic sections.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked for certain assurances for Filipinos working abroad. It is difficult for the UK to intervene in the affairs of other sovereign states. However, the British embassy in Manila and the Government of the Philippines co-chair a working group on the rights of domestic and tourist workers. The group looks at ways to improve the rights of Filipino workers abroad and fosters collaboration between government and international agencies. That was a point that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, also sought assurance on.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, also raised the issue of Filipino workers in this country. We have removed the overseas domestic worker visa tie and will be introducing additional reforms to ensure that workers are even better protected from abuse and slavery. These new measures will include information sessions for overseas domestic workers to ensure that they are aware of their rights as workers in the UK. He will also be aware that the Modern Slavery Act introduced a range of powerful protections for victims, including greater support through legal aid, special measures in court and immunity from immigration enforcement action.
The question that arises is: what can we do? We are using the global Britain and modern slavery funds to support programmes and projects that promote human rights and protect human rights defenders. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, we continue to make the case for drug addiction to be treated not as a criminal matter but as a health issue, and to offer UK assistance on the rehabilitation of addicts. My noble friend Lord Moynihan spoke movingly of the tragic and profoundly distressing consequences of lawlessness and criminal conduct, graphically describing its face and human cost. I assure him that we engage with the Philippine authorities on judicial reform and prison overcrowding, and are encouraging progress on human rights through our growing security co-operation—for example, by working with the Philippine judiciary and law enforcement agencies to improve their understanding of the workings of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012. Importantly, we have established a permanent National Crime Agency presence in the Philippines to tackle the appalling scourge of child exploitation. The agency is working closely with its Filipino partners to improve child protection, including by providing training on the forensic analysis of digital media.
A number of your Lordships, including the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, specifically referred to the overall question of poverty. The UK recognises the impact poverty has both on wider economic development and political stability. That is why one of the goals of our prosperity fund, to which I have referred, is to enhance economic development and gender equality through building technical capacity in the social sector.
I will now try to deal with a number of the specific points that were raised. If I run out of time, I undertake to write to colleagues. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked about prison and detention centres. With the approval of the Philippine National Police we make not unannounced visits to prisons and foreign detention centres—there will be a visit next week. We are not applying sanctions against Manila mayors or similar entities at the moment. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, mentioned the distressing case of Senator de Lima. That is just one of a number of cases that have caused us considerable concern. These are issues we regularly endeavour to raise in our dialogue with the Philippines.
The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, spoke about the well-respected news organisation, Rappler. We feel unable to comment on that, and that it would be inappropriate to do so at the moment, because it is currently the subject of charges. However, we have noted his concerns.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, raised the issue of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Trade visiting the Philippines. That is correct: he did visit in April 2017. Not only did he discuss the strength of the bilateral relationship but also the UK’s concerns about the human rights situation in the Philippines.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, asked whether economic leverage could be provided. The UK has a strong and wide-ranging bilateral relationship with the Philippines, including commercial ties of benefit to both. The strength of that relationship allows us to raise concerns regularly and at a high level. In the same context, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the matter of what advice is given to trade envoys. I offer to write to him in that respect, as I have no specific information.
I conclude by saying that we have serious concerns about the human rights situation in the Philippines. We regularly raise these concerns, frankly and at all levels. We will continue to promote progress in human rights with the aim that, ultimately, all Filipinos will enjoy equal rights and protections under the law as they are entitled to do. This has been a very helpful debate, and I thank all those who have contributed. I will look at Hansard and, if I have omitted to answer any questions, I will deal with these by correspondence.
My Lords, can we have a specific and comprehensive response on the UK Government’s support for the Bangsamoro peace process to be circulated to other Members through the Library?
I will certainly undertake to look at what the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, said in that context. I will endeavour to respond as fully as I can.