Abante to EU: Don’t use trade agreement as card in rights abuse probe

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine House lawmakers had a “frank and candid” discussion with their European counterparts on the issues of human rights abuses in the country, a ranking leader of the lower chamber said, but he told them not to use a consequential trade agreement as a negotiating tool.

In a chance interview, House human rights committee chairman Bienvenido “Benny” Abante Jr. of Manila’s 6th District said the two parties discussed the Philippines’ inclusion in the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+), which grants the country zero tariffs on thousands of products, in exchange for the Philippines’ compliance with a human rights standard.

“Do not dangle to us the carrot then afterwards, if you do not like our answers, you’re going to [wield]…a stick. Let’s drop the carrot and stick approach,” Abante said on Thursday, February 23.

“Our farmers and fisherfolk need that [agreement], and they should not use the Philippines’ trade agreement as a card when it comes to human rights investigations,” he added. “We would like to hold an objective dialogue than a biased dialogue.”

House Deputy Minority Leader France Castro also described the meeting as “friendly” until controversial human rights issues were discussed.

“When the International Criminal Court (ICC) probe on the war on drugs was discussed, as well as the Philippines’ inclusion in the GSP+, the [House] majority saw that as a threat,” the opposition lawmaker said.

The EU delegation spoke more positively of the meeting, but was short on details.

“The frank and vivid discussion we had clearly shows how vibrant democracy is here in the Philippines,” said European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights Vice Chairperson Hannah Neumann.

The European Union lawmakers also had a separate meeting with the left-wing Makabayan bloc, who submitted to the delegation a list of House resolutions they filed in connection with human rights abuses in the Philippines.

“We highlighted human rights violations against women and children. We know that even now, many women are still incarcerated for political reasons,” House Assistant Minority Leader Arlene Brosas of Gabriela said.

“There appears to be a seeming allergy to the attempts of the ICC to help in holding accountable top officials involved in the anti-poor and bloody war on drugs,” Kabataan Representative Raoul Manuel said. “We should not look at these moves by the ICC as threats to our sovereignty.”

The ICC resumed its investigation into former president Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war in late January, after it hit pause in November 2022.

The court has said it was not satisfied with materials provided by the Philippines to prove that it is willing and able to genuinely investigate the killings on its own.

The official death toll from the notorious anti-narcotics campaign is around 6,000, based on police records, but human rights groups believe the fatalities could go as high as 30,000.

In the House of Representatives, a resolution backed by 19 lawmakers, including Deputy Speaker and former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, urged the chamber to declare its “unequivocal defense” of Duterte.

The EU delegation was also scheduled to visit former senator Leila de Lima, now in detention for six years, on Thursday afternoon, and will hold a press conference to assess their trip on Friday, February 24.

The European Parliament has been vocal about widespread abuses in the Philippines, calling on the government to take action, or risk losing trade perks under the GSP+. – Rappler.com