The struggle for accountability

In June 1988, one country sang its way to freedom. Estonia, a small Baltic nation, started the Singing Revolution to assert its bid for independence from the Soviet Union. Hundreds and thousands of people gathered for five straight nights to sing songs of protest. It was soon followed by other forms of peaceful resistance, which culminated in Estonia’s triumph toward nationhood in 1991. It became a powerful example of how peaceful assembly could lead to societal change.

The fundamental right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association has long been cherished as a cornerstone of a flourishing democracy. It empowers citizens to collectively raise their voices, fostering better government responsiveness to the needs and interests of the people. However, a recent report by United Nations Special Rapporteur Clément Nyaletsossi Voule sheds light on the disturbing prevalence of impunity, wherein unchecked power has imperiled the right to protest in different corners of the world. Activists and protesters face severe human rights abuses, while perpetrators largely evade accountability, contributing to the repetition and escalation of the violations.


In the Philippines, human rights groups have sought to call attention to certain tactics that suppress protests. The 2022-2023 Amnesty International report underscored how “repression of dissent intensified,” notably through Red-tagging, which has endangered the life and welfare of several human rights defenders, activists, and various other individuals. These challenging realities were also reflected in the results of the Atlas of Impunity, a framework that measures the level of impunity in 163 countries based on five areas: abuse of human rights, unaccountable governance, conflict and violence, economic exploitation, and environmental degradation. The Philippines had an overall rank of 51st in the impunity index, and was alarmingly ranked as 20th when it came to human rights abuses. Per the report published earlier this year, a high score in this dimension indicates a state’s inability to uphold international human rights treaties, or suggests the potential enablement of violence for political coercion or punishing crime.

President Marcos has been quite vocal about his commitment to protect human rights, a promise he expressed to the UN resident coordinator over a year ago and has since repeated in various diplomatic meetings. Beyond the moral imperative, the country also needs to significantly improve its human rights record if it would like to continue enjoying certain trade perks granted by the European Union (EU). EU Parliament officials have already said that the renewal of the Philippine application for the GSP+ program is dependent on its compliance with certain human rights and labor rights.


It should be highlighted that the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac), an agency that had faced scrutiny from various groups for alleged Red-tagging practices, shared last month that instead of being “aggressive in going after different threats to society,” it will now shift to being “bringers of peace.” National Security Adviser and NTF-Elcac vice chair Eduardo Año said that this was a direction from Mr. Marcos, since the communist insurgency has significantly weakened. Año also announced last week that the agency will focus on establishing project management offices to deploy social services and other needed programs in communities that were battered due to armed conflict.

In his report, Voule stressed that so long as there are no consequences for offenders, an alarming cycle of continued repression and abuse would be continually perpetuated. He emphasized that while providing reparations is important, it should be a complement to and not a replacement for legal prosecutions. He also called on the Human Rights Council and other members of the international community, to step in when states fail to ensure accountability.

The President has recently declared noncooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC) regarding its investigation into alleged human rights violations related to the drug war, asserting that the Philippine criminal justice system possesses the jurisdiction and competence to handle domestic affairs. This decision comes with both a weighty responsibility and a significant opportunity for Mr. Marcos to demonstrate that the country is indeed capable of addressing such matters, despite ICC’s claims about insufficient action taken thus far. The world and the Filipino people await concrete and legal measures to hold perpetrators accountable and help provide justice to those whose rights have been infringed upon.

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