GSP+ perks feared casualty in bloody war on crime

AS BODIES pile up in the government's unrelenting war on illegal drugs, experts have warned of collateral damage among seemingly unrelated quarters like trade.

Already, one credit rater -- Standard & Poor's -- just last week voiced reservations on the government's chosen path in dealing with the drug menace, describing the bloody campaign as "unsettling" and reminding Manila that it was crucial to demonstrate rule of law when trying to improve confidence in the country's business climate.

The Philippine National Police has said that deaths of suspects in its anti-drug campaign had topped 400 in the month since President Rodrigo R. Duterte took office at noon of June 30, but an unofficial count adds more than 200 to this tally in those 31 days that were the handiwork of still-unidentified gunmen.

This time, a senior official of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said the controversial campaign could put at risk country's Generalized System of Preferences Plus (GSP +) status with the European Union (EU) that has allowed the tariff-free export of over 6,000 local products to that economic bloc since December 2014.

That, CHR Commissioner Karen Lucia S. Gomez Dumpit told BusinessWorld, is because the Philippines is facing a review next year of its compliance with two international human rights pacts.

The Philippines in 1986 ratified the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) -- which binds parties to ensure basic freedoms like expression and religion, as well as from cruel punishment -- and in 2007 did the same for ICCPR's Second Optional Protocol that bound signatories to support efforts to abolish the death penalty.

Mr. Duterte has championed the reimposition of capital punishment on serious crimes and his chief ally in the House of Representatives, Speaker Pantaleon D. Alvarez of Davao del Norte, early last month promptly obliged by filing one bill that seeks to bring back the death penalty and another that revises minimum age for criminal liability from 15 years old currently to just nine.

Noting that the ICCPR is one of the 27 conventions for which compliance is required for GSP+ eligibility, Ms. Dumpit said in a July 28 interview that the Philippines' privileges "will be affected definitely if there is grave abuse or grave violations that occurred."

"If you take a look at each and every case, for instance, there are indications that due process has not been followed; protocols have not been followed. Many of the suspects have been said to have been killed because they were trying to get the gun from their custodians. But it happens all too often that we always ask ourselves: why wasn't there any measure taken to have prevented the incidence of trying to get the... gun away from the law enforcement officer?"

Ms. Dumpit added that "if we're going to pass a law...[for] death penalty, we are still a state party to the optional protocol," hence, "that would be in breach" of the country's obligations.

"There is no opt-out in the second optional protocol," Ms. Dumpit emphasized, adding that "if we pass a law and we ignore our state obligation as a state party to the second optional protocol, then we would be in breach of the ICCPR" itself.

Compliance with ICCPR is regularly monitored by the Human Rights Committee under the United Nations Human Rights Council through reports submitted by state parties. According to that committee's fourth periodic report on the Philippines, the country is expected to submit its next report at the end of October. Ms. Dumpit said that while there is no set date for the review, it usually takes about a year for the Philippines' report to be considered by the committee.

"And primarily, when it comes to the GSP+, our role here is to independently monitor compliance with international human rights treaties which so happen to be under the GSP+ na rin," Ms. Dumpit said. "I think, if I'm not mistaken, next year we'll be reporting on ICCPR."

Asked on what her commission's report might say, Ms. Dumpit replied: "Ikaw na magsabi (You be the judge): Do you think we will have a good report if... based on other reports that are there are about seven people being killed every day?"

Before the grant of the GSP+ status in December 2014, the Philippines was covered by EU's regular GSP which accorded zero duty treatment on only 2,442 products and reduced tariffs for 3,767 products.

In an e-mail last July 7, the European Commission (EC), which reviews eligibility of each GSP+ beneficiary, said the EU's executive body looks forward to "the Philippine administration maintaining the same level of engagement under the new leadership" citing a "very positive and constructive dialogue" with the previous administration with regards to the ICCPR.

Review of GSP+ eligibility takes place every two years. The first report, released just last January, covered 2014 to 2015. The next one is expected to be published at the end of the second reporting period in late 2017.

The first report said that while the "number of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances has substantially declined" under then president Benigno S. C. Aquino III, much remained to be done. "The major problem of the Philippines remains the culture of impunity as cases of grave human rights abuses, including extra-judicial killings and torture, remain largely unresolved," the report read.

"While the GSP+ is in essence an incentives-based scheme, GSP+ rules foresee the possibility to suspend preferential treatment for a GSP+ beneficiary in case an international body responsible for implementation monitoring of a given convention concludes that the convention has been violated," EC's July 7 e-mail read.

"In such case, the EU might act. This however has not been the case so far," EC had said seven days into Mr. Duterte's term.

"Temporary withdrawal of preferences is an exceptional measure that is taken only as a last recourse, when other mechanisms of dialogue and cooperation with the concerned GSP+ beneficiary fail."

Asked for comment, Henry J. Schumacher, external affairs vice-president of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, said in a text message last week that "the CHR has a point."

But Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon M. Lopez said in a mobile text message last Sunday that there should be "no impact or risk" on GSP+ from an intensified anti-drug war, and at least one industry leader said the government's otherwise seemingly effective drive should not weigh on trade.

"Well, I guess in this particular sense, I don't think... any report... that comes out from UN on the anti-crime drive will have any effect on business," said Sergio R. Ortiz-Luis Jr., president of the Philippine Exporters Confederation, Inc.

"I don't think it would affect some countries in particular... because they are also against crime and in fact they know collateral damage cannot be avoided," he explained.

"With what is happening in crime, even... abroad -- in Europe, in the US -- I don't think they will look at what's happening in the Philippines as anything significant or extraordinary. I don't think anybody -- except for those hardline human rights advocates -- I don't think others really think this is something to be alarmed with."

Citing EU data, the Department of Trade and Industry had reported last February that value of Philippine exports -- both goods and services -- to the 28-member EU Euros 743 million ($831 million) in the first half of 2015 right after the country bagged GSP+ status, 27% more than the Euros 584 million sold in 2014's comparative six months.

Philippine goods by themselves, however, seem not to have immediately benefited, with EU data showing value of outbound shipments to that bloc falling 9.4% to Euros 6.159 billion last year from Euros 6.799 billion in 2014, which in turn was up 17.3% from 2013's Euros 5.798 billion.

Exports of EU goods to the Philippines fared better, rising in value by 18.5% to Euros 6.8 billion last year from Euros 5.736 billion in 2014, which in turn was 12.2% more than 2013's Euros 5.114 billion.

Source: Business World Online