26th Jul 2021


EU's new ambassador to Philippines has work cut out

  • The slums of Manila, the capital of the Philippines (Photo: mansunides)

Last month was a a busy one for the EU delegation in the Philippines, championing womens' rights - but 15 March also marked one year since the arbitrary arrest of Teresita Naul from northern Mindanao, a human rights activist member of the NGO Karapatan.

This is not an isolated case, but another episode of systematic abuse of human rights perpetrated in the Philippines - a consistent pattern that recently culminated in the killings of social activists in Calabarzon.

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  • President Rodrigo Duterte's open contempt for human rights has made the relationship with Brussels a fraught one (Photo: Wikimedia)

While it is positive that the EU took a strong position on this massacre, it is surely not enough.

It is true that the relationship between the Philippines and the EU has been fraught in the past few years - with the handling of human rights by the government in Manila being the main cause.

Some degree of 'vaccine diplomacy' is now on the horizon, and the arrival of the new EU ambassador Luc Véron promises to start a new chapter in the bilateral relationship.

Yet ambassador Véron and his team are going to have their work cut out for them as they have the daunting task of projecting a more assertive values-based foreign policy in a country that championed disregarding human rights.

Will the ambassador be able to reconcile divergent interests and raise human rights to a new level without provoking further backlash from president Rodrigo Duterte?

For one thing the ambassador should not be left alone by Brussels, and a "whole of the Union" approach must be pursued, especially now that human rights have become so central for the EU.

Namely, the new EU Agenda on Multilateralism, the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024, the new European Democracy Action Plan and a new EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Mechanism, are all tools that could reshape the way the EU deals with human rights violators around the world.

In addition, the Guidelines on Human Rights Dialogues with Partner/Third Countries has been recently revised, making them an essential component of EU foreign policy.

Now that finally the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between the Philippines and the EU kicked off, with the first meeting of the sub-committee on good governance, rule of law and human rights, the EU needs to find new ways to elevate human rights as the defining political issue in the country.

This should happen not only bilaterally but also by a much stronger engagement with civil society, including human rights defenders and key institutions like the Commission on Human Rights.

'Realpolitik' required

That's why Ambassador Véron needs all the support available and some more from Brussels because the Philippines is going to be a testing case for the EU's new agenda. Will the EU be able to match its new ambition in matters of human rights with some crude realpolitik?

The new tools now available offers much larger latitude to the EU diplomatic missions around the world, potentially turning them into much stronger advocates and defenders of human rights.

For example, the EU must produce a new country strategy, the so-called multi-annual indicative programme, and at the same time, a new human rights country strategy is going to be formulated, both aiming at consolidating the PCA.

Openly engaging human rights activists in the upcoming review and policy formulation would help project human rights as a cornerstone of any future EU relationships with the Philippines.

The message should be one and clear and loud: human rights matter and the lives of human rights defenders in the Philippines do matter too for the EU.

The soft power being displayed through engaging exercises of public diplomacy seen last month should be matched by 'hard' tools, including a much stronger and vigorous use of instruments directly aiming at protecting human rights defenders.

For example, one way could be the scaling up of the programme that, if activated in faster fashion, can literally save lives.

The EU special representative for human rights, Eamon Gilmore, must be ready to provide full support to ambassador Véron in order to ensure a proper follow up on the discussions before next meeting in 2022, and the best signal would come with an official visit of Josep Borrell, the EU foreign affairs chief.

A stronger focus on human rights might jeopardise the reset now - but not fully leveraging the new tools the EU has at its disposal will once again prove that Europeans do not mean serious business when they talk about human rights.

There was a great deal of disappointment when last year the Human Rights Council decided to focus on "technical cooperation" rather than pursuing a full investigation of human rights abuses in the Philippines.

Yet, pursuing an ambitious and bold technical cooperation, something the EU can certainly do by supporting the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and by partnering more with the Commission of Human Rights, does not imply doing away with tougher calls if and whenever required.

Moreover, the partial admission that abuses by the law enforcement agencies were committed during this 'war on drugs' provides a pretext for the EU to step up its engagement in human rights.

The EU should ensure that the Commission of Human Rights is no longer marginalised in the official review of the so-called war on drugs death toll - a clear breach on the promises made by justice secretary Menardo Guevarra before the Human Rights Council last year.

With the government forced to attune its harsh rhetoric, external partners who care about human rights can now up the game.

Meanwhile fighting more publicly for Teresita Naul and many other activists like her now in detention is a responsibility the EU cannot dodge any more.

Author bio

Simone Galimberti is the co-found of the NGO Engage - Inclusive Change Through Volunteering and blogs at Sharing4Good on social inclusion, volunteering, youth development, regional integration and the Sustainable Development Goals in Asia-Pacific.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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