Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Philippines - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:41 pm on 24th January 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 3:41 pm, 24th January 2019

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.