By Diego García-Sayán
GENEVA (1 June 2018) – A UN human rights expert has expressed grave concerns about public threats issued against the Philippines’ Chief Justice by the country’s President, saying her dismissal, that followed those threats, is sending a chilling message to other supreme court judges and members of the judiciary posing a serious threat to judicial independence.
On 11 May 2018, the Supreme Court voted 8-6 to remove Maria Lourdes Sereno from her job on the grounds she had failed an ‘integrity test’. Chief Justice Sereno was appointed the country’s top judge position in 2010.
“The decision of the Supreme Court was issued two days after the President of the Philippines publicly threatened the Chief Justice by saying that she was his enemy and that she should be removed from her job or resign,” said Diego García-Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.
“The unprecedented decision of the Supreme Court of the Philippines seems directly related to the threats made against the Chief Justice in relation to her professional activities in defence of the independence of the judiciary.”
The President has denied having had a hand in the quo warranto petition resulting in her dismissal.
“The derogatory statements and threats by President Duterte, which have been televised, broadcast on radio, and carried by newspapers, constitute a vicious attack on the independence of the judiciary,” García-Sayán said.
“Not only do they constitute direct intimidation of the Chief Justice; they also appear to have had have a ‘chilling effect’ on other Supreme Court justices, who may have been deterred from asserting their judicial independence and exercising their freedom of expression.”
The human rights expert stressed that international human rights standards on the independence of the judiciary provide that it is the duty of all governmental and other institutions to respect and observe the independence of the judiciary.
“Ms. Sereno’s only fault was to write a polite letter to the President expressing her concern on the premature announcement of an informal investigation against seven judges accused in August 2016 of involvement in illegal drug activities,” said García-Sayán.
On 13 April 2018, President Duterte called the Chief Justice “ignorant”, “dumb”, and a “coward”. The President recalled how she had called on judges whom he had publicly declared to be involved in illegal drug activities not to surrender to authorities unless arrest warrants were issued against them. The President was quoted as saying: ‘You really should be removed. You should have been removed way before. You are dumb. Your mother is a wh***. Give way. If I were you, I will resign.’
“The use of such derogatory language against the highest-ranking magistrate in the country sends a clear message to all judges of the Philippines: in the so-called ‘war on drugs’, you’re either with me or against me,” the UN expert said.
On 30 May, Ms. Sereno filed a motion for reconsideration before the Supreme Court, alleging that the Supreme Court decision of May 11 was “null and void” because it violated her right to due process.
“The right to a fair trial presupposes the existence of an independent and impartial tribunal,” concluded the Special Rapporteur.“It is high time to adopt concrete measures to restore judicial independence, which is enshrined in the national constitution as well as in international human rights treaties.”
The UN expert has relayed his concerns to the Government and will continue following the evolutions of the events regarding this very sensitive matter.
Mr. Diego García-Sayán (Peru) has been Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers since December 2016. As a Special Rapporteur, Mr. García-Sayán is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.