The Philippines abstention: A step backwards

Philippines had voted for the SOGI resolution in 2014, so the abstention in 2016 was a step backwards. The Philippines observed:

Two years ago the Philippines voted to support the resolution on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI). At that time the SOGI resolution’s purpose was to discuss discrimination and violence against individuals based on SOGI… We supported that resolution in the context of Philippines’ strong commitment to the promotion and protection of the human rights of all individuals regardless of race, color, sex, gender, religion or any other status in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other International and regional human rights agreements to which it is a State party. It is the pursuant of this commitment that the Philippines has stood against discrimination against specific individuals and sectors including discrimination and violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, such as those belonging to LGBT sector.

We also supported the previous resolution with the full understanding that the resolution will neither create nor lead to the creation of new human rights specific to LGBTs and other individuals with specific sexual orientation and gender identity as it will run counter to the universality of human rights. Most important of all, we understood the previous resolution would not impose, not derogate the sovereign rights of States to formulate and define its own laws.

Today we express the same commitment and understanding. However, my delegation was not ready to support the establishment of a mandate holder specially so, when mandate holder to be created by its very nature pursue a set of standards apply to a specific sector when there is no consensus on a set of universally accepted human rights standards. It is for this reason, Mr. President that my delegation voted to support the portion of the resolution that pertained to combatting violence and discrimination against LGBT. We voted against L.75 because it attempts to change the essence and message of Article 1.5 of the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action in the World Conference on Human Rights which reads in parts.

While the significant of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind. It is a duty of States regardless their political, economic and cultural systems to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Mr. President, we are abstaining on the vote to create a new mandate holder and we will abstain on the resolution as a whole.

The abstention by Philippines generated shock among civil society groups who had advocated for Philippines to follow its previous vote, and vote in favour of the resolution. The vote on the resolution occurred on the same day that the new President, Rodrigo Duterte was inaugurated. However, this was unlikely to have influenced the vote, with the more significant factor being the 2014 White paper issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The white paper argues that ‘the Philippines has always been tolerant and respectful of the LGBT/SOGI community’ with the respect and tolerance being ‘firmly anchored on the equal protection clause of the 1987 Constitution.’ However the white paper notes that ‘currently there are no domestic law that ensures that upholding and respect for their rights. Specifically there is an absence of PH legislation explicitly (i) recognizing and regulating same sex marriage and civil partnerships between persons of the same sex; and (ii) regulating the effects of changes in a person’s legal status which may have been brought about by sex reassignment.’

Combined with this perceived lack of clear guidance or domestic mandate, the white paper also articulated the implications of Philippines taking a more proactive SOGI supportive position internationally.

PH’s consistent pursuit of SOGI in every CSW session without a clear resolution on this issue creates the impression that this forms part of the country’s foreign policy, which impacts on our relations with specific states and regional partners such as the OIC and Holy See.[1]The white paper also put forth domestic concerns:

It should be noted that the Catholic Church and the Muslim community in the Philippines, which realistically influence the formulation of PH policy, may incite further the controversy that will create a difficult process towards achieving consensus on the issue. [2]

This paper, which was authored after the ‘yes’ vote by the Philippines to the SOGI resolution in 2014, was conspicuous by its silence on its analysis of the 2014 vote. However, reading between the lines, one can infer that there was significant push back both domestically as well as in terms of relations with friendly states which ensured that overt support by the Philippines for SOGI issues globally was not feasible any more.

As the white paper concluded:

It is recommended that PH adopt for now a policy of ‘strategic silence’ until such time that the country passes a law that comprehensively covers LGBT/ SOGI rights which could then serve as a framework for any change in the recommended policy.

We will have to see if the position of ‘strategic silence’ articulated in the white paper changes under the new administration of President Duterte, as Filipino LGBT groups work to ensure that respect for LGBT rights becomes a part of the national and international policy of the Philippines.

[1] This section is based on exchanges with members of the ASEAN SOGI Caucus, Ryan Silverio and Cornelius Darpito who shared relevant material and analysis.

[2] Ibid.