AS President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarian rule gets further strengthened after his candidates dominated the May 13 elections for the Philippine Senate, his all-out war on human rights defenders is likely to intensify.
Upon return from an international mission to the Philippines, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is alarmed by the ongoing repression of human rights defenders and the further deterioration of the environment in which they operate.
As witnessed directly by the Observatory representatives, human rights defenders in the country, including NGO representatives, media activists, land and environmental rights defenders, trade unionists and human rights lawyers, are repeatedly subjected to trumped up charges and lengthy pre-trial arbitrary detention, threats, and killings in total impunity. President Duterte’s unabated ‘war on drugs, along with he continued imposition of martial law in Mindanao and the increased militarisation of Negros province go hand with hand with a rise in the violence against defenders in the country.
Since President Duterte took power in June 2016, human rights defenders have faced relentless vilification and red-tagging, including through the use of fake news, which aims to undermine and discredit their legitimate work. Ahead of the May 13 elections, government red-tagging campaigns further increased. On April 26, 2019, several lawyers from the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), journalists from Rappler, an online news outlet known for its investigative reporting and its criticism of the Duterte administration’s actions, and members of the Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), were exposed in a so-called “associational matrix” as being part of a purported plot to oust Duterte. Such public attacks have directly put at risk human rights defenders, and in some cases, resulted in their actual killing. On April 22, 2019, Mr. Bernardino Patigas, a city councilor and a well-known human rights defender who called for land reform and denounced the militarisation of communities and ongoing human rights violations in Negros province, was killed. In April 2018, his name and picture, together with that of human rights lawyer Mr. Benjamin Ramos, who was subsequently murdered on Nov. 6, 2018, and 60 other individuals and rights advocates, were included in a poster of alleged communist personalities. Following reports of Mr. Patigas’ killing, a death threat via text message from an unknown person was sent to Ms. Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary general, and various other community leaders in Negros, insinuating that the names included in the message were targets to be killed within the year.
The number of human rights lawyers killed during Duterte’s presidency continued to rise, with 38 lawyers killed since July 2016. The Observatory condemns the statement made on May 9 by the Duterte government, telling the Supreme Court that human rights lawyers do not need a protection order from the government and the military, arguing that “there is no extra-legal killing and enforced disappearances” among the lawyers’ ranks. Such statements directly contribute to the perpetuation of the context of impunity for attacks against defenders.
Human rights defenders are not terrorists, criminals or enemies of the State. We call upon the authorities of the Philippines to re-open the space for civil society and to recognise the legitimacy of human rights defenders and protect them instead of slandering them.
Aside from public attacks and impunity for killings, the government is increasingly striving to annihilate the work of NGOs. Notably, the 2018 Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Memorandum Circular No. 15, published in November 2018, clearly aims to restrict the work of NGOs, who are now forced to disclose more information about their work and funding under the guise of fighting terrorism and money laundering. Incomplete submission of this information will be deemed a failure to comply and can result in the revocation of an NGO’s registration. NGOs may also be categorised as “at risk” of money laundering or terrorist financing abuse on the basis on an undisclosed points system. More recently, the Government claimed that six prominent NGOs, including the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (Pahra) and Karapatan — the Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights — were supporting the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and were operating illegally as a result of the cancellation of their SEC registration. Yet, both Pahra and Karapatan secured new registration in 2010 and 2013, following previous revocations of their registration in 2003 and 2005, respectively.
Besides, pending amendments to the 2007 Human Security Act are also likely to be used, if adopted, to target and silence critical voices in the country. The amendments would notably allow arrests without a warrant or judicial oversight for up to 30 days, provide immunity to law enforcement officials and the military for delays in bringing individuals before judicial authorities, and expand the already vague definition of terrorist crimes to encompass ordinary crimes.
If President Duterte is serious about his commitment to improve the living conditions of poor people in the Philippines, he should stop targeting defenders — the very people who stand up for human rights, development and social justice for all. —Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders