The Philippines pushed back Friday against European Union lawmakers for endorsing a potential halt to preferential treatment given to many Filipino imports, as EU officials cited concerns about rights abuses committed during the Duterte administration’s much criticized war on drugs.
If the European bloc goes through with the move, it would be viewed unfavorably worldwide as countries struggle to survive economically amid the extended effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte said.
“If they want to put [an] extra burden on Filipinos during a time of a pandemic, so be it. We will accept that as history repeating itself,” spokesman Harry Roque said in a virtual news conference from northern Baguio city, as he criticized the potential move by the country’s former “colonial masters.” The Philippines is a former colony of Spain, an EU member-state.
The Philippines, Roque said, could survive the economic penalty from Europe.
“Let’s stop this discussion. They should do whatever they want. In times like this, if they want to implement it, go ahead! They will be the biggest contributor to the violation of the right to life in the Philippines.”
The European Parliament this week passed a motion recommending that the EU revoke the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) status given to the Philippines. It allows zero tariffs on a quarter of Philippine exports to the bloc that are worth almost 2 billion euros (U.S. $2.3 billion).
The Philippines has been in the program since December 2014 and, according to the EU, the countries in this program have to commit to “27 core international conventions on human and labor rights, environmental protection and good governance” to maintain GSP+ status. The EU continuously monitors the countries for implementation of these conventions.
In their motion passed on Thursday, the European lawmakers cited the thousands of alleged extrajudicial killings committed during the Philippine crackdown on narcotics and what they see as the smothering of a free press in the country as evidence that the human rights situation there is on a downward spiral.
“Given the seriousness of the human rights violations” in the Philippines, the European Parliament “calls on the European Commission, in the absence of any substantial improvement and willingness to cooperate on the part of the Philippine authorities, to immediately initiate the procedure which could lead to the temporary withdrawal of GSP+ preferences,” the resolution said.
The European lawmakers also noted that since they had raised such concerns earlier, there had not been enough improvement in the human rights situation in the Philippines or in terms of cooperation from the government.
Last month, Human Rights Watch had criticized the EU for not taking concrete action on what it called Philippine abuses.
“Despite noting major backsliding in the country’s human rights record, the EU has so far refused to trigger the mechanisms that could lead to the suspension of the trade benefits” under GSP+, the New York-based right advocacy group said in a statement on Aug. 31.
Human Rights Watch was referring to a 2018-19 report by the European Commission to the European Parliament and EU Council that flagged concerns about the Philippines.
“With regard to the Philippines, there is serious concern about the death toll associated with the campaign against illegal drugs and the lack of effective, impartial and transparent investigations of all cases of death,” the commission said in its report.
“Civil society space is also shrinking due to measures taken in the context of the war on terrorism. This has led to increased violence against members of civil society, human rights defenders, indigenous peoples, journalists, and lawyers,” it added.
A big market for Philippine exports
Losing the European market would result in significant losses to the Philippines, as statistics show that two-way trade between the Asian country and the EU totaled some 14.9 billion euros ($17.6 billion) in 2019 alone. The EU is the Philippines’ fourth largest trading partner, accounting for almost 9 percent of the country’s total trade in 2018. The Philippines is the EU’s 39th largest trading partner globally, accounting for 0.4 percent of the EU’s total trade.
In recommending ending preferential treatment for Philippine imports, the European Parliament also pointed unfavorably to the forced closure of Filipino broadcast giant ABS-CBN Corp. and the conviction of Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa of Rappler. The broadcaster and Rappler have been unrelenting in their coverage of the deaths related to Duterte’s drug war.
In addition, EU lawmakers called for the release of Sen. Leila de Lima, a Philippine opposition figure and Duterte critic who has been detained on what she claims are false drug-related charges.
The European Parliament also expressed concern about the recent enactment of an anti-terror law, which they said could be used by Philippine police to stifle legal dissent by portraying those protesting against the Duterte government as terrorists and enemies of the state.
Roque, the president’s spokesman, said European lawmakers had been misinformed about the situation in the Philippines.
Roque justified ABS-CBN’s closure and Ressa’s conviction, saying the former was ordered by Congress and the latter was a local court ruling.
Duterte has drawn intense criticism from the international community for his crackdown on illegal drugs that, according to official statistics, has killed more than 6,600 suspected drug dealers and addicts. Meanwhile, rights groups say that thousands of others have also been killed by vigilante groups with ties to the government, an allegation that the government has repeatedly denied.
Still, Duterte has remained defiant, pulling out the Philippines from the International Criminal Court when it opened an inquiry into the drug war killings, and barring U.N. rights experts from entering the country.