UN expert says more needs to be done to address human rights abuses in the Philippines

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The government of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has taken steps to to address human rights abuses in the country, including the killings of journalists and rights activists, a U.N. expert said Friday. However, more needs to be done, she said, including ensuring accountability.

The remarks by United Nations Special Rapporteur Irene Khan came at the end of a nearly two-week visit — at the invitation of the government — to assess rights conditions in the Philippines, where she met with officials and activists, as well as a detained journalist.

Khan said she underscored the need for the Marcos administration to seek justice for rights victims under his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.

Watchdog groups had described Duterte’s term as a “human rights calamity” due to widespread violations, including the killings of thousands of mostly poor suspects in a brutal anti-drugs crackdown. The International Criminal Court is investigating the killings as a potential crime against humanity.

“These are all positive signals, but they are not sufficient to turn the page decisively on the past,” Khan said at a news conference in Manila.

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“Tackling the grave and deep-seated human rights problems of the Philippines … will require more fundamental and sustained reforms and also a clear commitment to accountability,” Khan said.

She cited U.N. figures saying that at least 81 past killings of journalists in the Philippines have not been investigated and remain unresolved.

With four journalists separately being killed since Marcos took office in 2022, “the trend remains disturbing,” she said. The justice department in Manila was prosecuting suspects in three of the killings and an investigation was underway in the fourth case, she added.

“The killing of journalists is the most egregious form of censorship,” Khan said, adding that the Philippines “remains a dangerous country for journalists.”

Khan urged Marcos’ government to abolish its task force overseeing a campaign to end a decades-old communist insurgency, one of the longest-running in the world, and also appealed against the policy of “red-tagging,” a practice by authorities to link activists with armed insurgents.

Since 1969, the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, have fought successive Philippine governments.

“There is clear evidence that red-tagging and terror-tagging are being practiced by security forces as part of their counterterrorism strategy,” Khan said.

Legitimate activists have been targeted, she said, and “the vilification has often been followed by threats, unlawful surveillance, attacks or even unlawful killing.”

Jonathan Malaya, assistant director-general of the National Security Council, denied there is a policy of “red-tagging” critics.

He insisted that the task force Khan wants disbanded had helped weaken the communist insurgency in recent years, with just 1,500 guerrillas remaining. Once remaining guerrilla fronts have been dismantled, the task force would turn to promoting peace and national unity, Malaya said.

The Maoist rebel force was established in 1969 with only about 60 armed fighters in the country’s north but gradually grew amid crunching poverty and unrest among farmers, spreading across the country. However, battlefield setbacks and infighting have weakened the guerrillas, who remain a key threat to Philippine security.

Associated Press reporters Joeal Calupitan and Aaron Favila in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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