No, Thank You to EU: Where Does the PH Stand on Human Rights?
THE RELATIVELY brief history of PH-EU relations has been a good one, with clear benefits for the two partners in many ways. In recent years, the 28-member bloc has become the country’s largest foreign investor and a generous source of official development aid (ODA), most of which goes to Mindanao communities affected by conflict.
But clearly, the relationship has moved through a shaky passage, considering how President Duterte, characteristically averse to criticism, responded with hostility to the EU’s statements on alleged human rights violations in the conduct of the government’s war on drugs. A resolution released by the European Parliament on September 2016 urged the government to investigate the killings and to put in place comprehensive policies and programs compliant with national and international conventions on human rights. Duterte later responded by telling the EU to withdraw its assistance to the Philippines. In a more recent resolution released on March 2017, the EU again urged the government to end the drug-related killings. The resolution opened the possibility of removing the country’s GSP+ (Generalized System of Preferences Plus) privileges which would result to serious losses in trade and revenues.
On May 17 this year, the Philippine government said it would refuse a $280-million (250 million Euros) grant from the EU. The decision was made shortly after Duterte’s visit to China, when, the government claimed, the Chinese government pledged billions of dollars in financial aid and investments.
The media reported this development by simply quoting statements from Malacañang and Cabinet officials, with barely any effort to explain what “conditionalities” referred to, as public officials who speaking on the subject had used the word in responding to journalists asking about the decision. Reports also failed to examine the implications of the policy shift.
CMFR monitored reports of newspapers Manila Bulletin, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Daily Tribune, Malaya, Manila Standard, and The Manila Times; primetime newscasts 24 Oras (GMA-7), Aksyon (TV5), News Night (CNN Philippines), and TV Patrol (ABS-CBN 2), as well as selected news sites from May 17 to 22, 2017.
Missed Opportunity to Focus on HR
News of the refusal of the EU grant came late Wednesday night, May 17, quoting anonymous sources. Later reports clarified that the decision would only affect new grants and not existing ones. EU Ambassador Franz Jessen said the DOF informed him of the decision in a meeting on Wednesday. The amount at stake was a total of $278.7 million (250 million Euros).
Most of the reports relied on accounts from Malacañang, particularly Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella’s statements in a May 18 press briefing. He said the government will be turning down grants from the EU as these “may allow it (the EU) to interfere with the internal policies of the Philippines.”
Abella admitted that comments are not necessarily interference in state affairs; but added, such comments are objectionable when these “begin to impose certain conditionalities that will interfere with the way [government] handles things.” Abella said that the decision was made on a recommendation made by the Department of Finance.
DOF Secretary Carlos Dominguez replied to media queries in text which said, the government “did not cancel any existing EU grants” and that the president “approved the recommendation not to accept the EU’s offer” which involves a review of the country’s adherence to the rule of law. The grant, Dominguez said, was considered “interference in our internal affairs.”
The media should have followed up with questions on the matter of human rights, respect for which is upheld through international conventions of which the Philippines is a signatory. This context would reveal then the significant implications of the conduct of President Duterte’s war on illegal drugs and the allegations of EJKs and summary executions, in the light of the country’s long-standing commitment to uphold human rights and its historic ties to nations and countries holding the same values.
The EU conditionality is not new. Donor countries have developed their donor practice to reflect their values as a nation. This would have been a perfect opportunity, the news peg for reportage that could break away from media’s dependence on merely citing official statements, and to move to a more comprehensive analysis of what the decision reflects. Unfortunately, the media gave Dominguez’ specific revelation no more than a passing mention or a flashed image of the text on the TV screen.
Reports also did refer to Duterte’s previous confrontational remarks on the EU, but largely the coverage, triggered by a news event that had human rights at its center, missed drawing more views of concerned Filipinos on this significant issue.
Also absent from the coverage were the voices from Mindanao, particularly the recipient communities or organizations of EU’s assistance in the region. What benefits did previous EU grants provide? What effect will this decision have on the welfare or development of the recipient communities?
Duterte’s decision-making process
The move to reject the EU grants is a significant decision. Recipient countries, like donor countries, also have their values and their policies to guide their ODA partnerships. One would think that rejecting the EU funds stands out as such a radical policy change — that it would involve open and intense discussion of Cabinet officials who have to do with the issue.
National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) chief Ernesto Pernia said the issue was not discussed during cabinet meetings. Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said they have not seen the details and are waiting for clarification.
CNN Philippines’ News Night on May 18 invited NEDA chief Pernia to discuss the president’s decision. News Night anchor Pia Hontiveros began by asking Pernia about the process of decision making on this case. Why was Pernia not initially aware of the decision to decline the grants? Was NEDA involved in the handling of foreign aid and ODAs? While Pernia did answer in earnest some of these questions, there was little that he could add to what had been established — that the government does not want this assistance from the EU because the EU had conditionalities. The line of questioning revealed that NEDA, a key government agency involved in economic policy matters and overseeing the ODA process, was completely out of the loop in discussion about the EU grant.
If government sources can’t talk, surely there are other experts who can provide information which would help the public assess the wisdom of this executive decision.
It was the columnists who delved into the matter of conditionalities, which news accounts only reported as quotes. In “Aid with no strings attached?”Inquirer columnist Randy David pointed out that there is no such thing as free aid. No foreign development assistance “is freely given without any expectation” as these come with costs and consequences, he said. David said these after briefly recalling and connecting the policy shift to the relationship between Duterte and the EU which had criticized the government’s seeming disregard for the rule of law in the anti narcotics campaign, the plan to reinstate the death penalty, and the jailing of Sen. Leila de Lima. David then looked into the China influence over the territorial dispute, noting how Duterte’s actions on the issue seem to imply that the Philippines is prepared to junk the arbitral ruling in exchange for Chinese aid and investments. As David put it: “These goods come not with strings attached, but with a rope by which to hang ourselves.”
Political analyst Richard Heydarian’s “Five facts about EU grants and Duterte admin’s posturing” laid out five points in an attempt to make sense of the logic behind the policy change. His salient points echoed David’s views on the conditionalities, noting that the EU grants have expectations “written into contract” that the recipient nation must meet in exchange for development assistance. Heydarian noted that the EU has “sought to encourage recipient countries to observe labor rights or universal values enshrined in the United Nation’s charter, such as human rights” – an issue that always provokes Duterte’s anger. In the end, Heydarian calls the decision a “classic posturing” by the Duterte administration.