On February 7 in Tacloban City, Eastern Visayas, a journalist and four human rights activists were rounded up by security forces in two separate raids. Marielle Domequil, Mira Legion, Alexander Abinguna, Marissa Cabaljao and Frenchie Mae Cumpio were arrested and accused of possessing firearms, and of being part of an “identified Communist Terrorist group”. Human rights groups have refuted these allegations, saying the weapons were planted by the authorities and that they are being targeted because of their activism.
These arrests highlight the hostile environment in the Philippines for activists, and the sustained attacks on people and institutions defending human rights since President Duterte took power in 2016. The CIVICUS Monitor—an online platform that rates the Philippines’ civic space as “obstructed”—has documented a systematic assault on human rights by the state. Killings, arrests, threats and intimidation of human rights defenders, activists, journalists and government critics are often perpetrated with immunity.
The CIVICUS Monitor has documented a systematic assault on human rights by the state. Killings, arrests, threats and intimidation of human rights defenders, activists, journalists and government critics are often perpetrated with immunity.
One tactic that CIVICUS has seen increasingly being used by the government to target activists and NGOs is to label them as “terrorists” or “communist fronts”, particularly those who have been critical of Duterte’s deadly “war on drugs” that has killed thousands. Such a process, known as “red-tagging” in the Philippines, often puts activists at grave risk of being targeted by the state and pro-government militias.
As we have seen globally, such methods delegitimise activists and undermine their work. They can also have the effect of inciting government sympathisers against activists, putting them at risk of physical attacks and killings at the hands of pro-government armed groups or other non-state actors.
Undermining groups that are critical of the government has had serious repercussions in the Philippines. In June 2019 four left-wing activists died in a spate of killings perpetrated by unidentified gunmen. Prior to that, government officials had accused leftist groups that operate openly and legally of being “communists”. No one has been brought to justice for these killings.
Another tactic employed by the government to clampdown on dissent, is using anti-terrorism legislation to arrest human rights defenders.
In February 2018 a government petition accused 649 people, including indigenous people’s leaders, environmentalists and church workers, of terrorism, alleging that they were members of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party. Among those on the “terrorist” list was Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and a Filipino national. UN experts believed that this was an act of retaliation for Tauli-Corpuz’s comments against the attacks and killing of indigenous peoples in the Southern Province of Mindanao by security forces.
Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, NGOs in the Philippines have also been forced to disclose information about their work, and have had their bank accounts frozen. In early February the government froze several bank accounts of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), a Catholic church group who work with the rural poor, on suspicion of “financing terrorism”.
Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, NGOs in the Philippines have also been forced to disclose information about their work, and have had their bank accounts frozen.
The security forces in the Philippines have also been accused of using excessive force when dealing with activists. In October 2018, a group of peasant activists were arrested by operatives of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), Philippine National Police and elements of the 7th Infantry Division in Nueva Ecija. According to news reports, the army claimed the activists were “rebels” who were “conducting recruitment”, and they were denied access to lawyers. The daughter of one activist claimed her mother, Eulalia Ladesma, was dragged by her hair and forced to the ground when CIDG operatives found her. While on the ground, Ladesma was kicked several times and then her hands were bound.
Such tactics, together with judicial harassment, threats and intimidation, have had a chilling effect on activists across the nation. Nevertheless, human rights defenders in the Philippines have refused to back down and instead are pushing back.
Intense national campaigning as well as a strong global outcry against the government’s “terror list” forced the courts in July 2018 to remove the names of human rights activists on file. In May 2019, the Supreme Court afforded protection in favour of three civil society groups labelled by the government as alleged fronts of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Human rights groups also pushed the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to launch a national inquiry into the situation of human rights defenders in September 2019, amid the rising number of deaths perpetrated by state agents. Commissioner Roberto Cadiz said the inquiry was in response to complaints and petitions filed by various human rights organisations detailing allegations of extra judicial killings, enforced disappearances, and threats.
Activists have also bravely taken their fight to the United Nations—despite the threat of reprisals. In June 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s adopted a resolution on the Philippines which expressed concern about the range of rights violations in the country, and called on the government to cooperate with UN mechanisms and experts. The resolution also requested the UN to present a comprehensive report on human rights in the Philippines to the council, due in June 2020.
The Philippine government has tried to deflect the issues raised in the UN by waging an aggressive disinformation campaign against human rights groups, critics of the “drug war” and countries that supported the resolution.
More countries—especially those in Southeast Asia—need to speak out and demand accountability against the brutal crimes of the Duterte regime.
Internationally, there has been strong support for activists in the Philippines. In January 2020, the US government imposed visa restrictions on Duterte administration figures who have been implicated in serious rights violations.
However, more countries—especially those in Southeast Asia—need to speak out and demand accountability against the brutal crimes of the Duterte regime. Despite the fightback by human rights defenders, the situation remains extremely grave for many activists on the ground and a climate of impunity prevails. Failure to act will put many more activists at risk.