In an escalating campaign of harassment, seven Filipino rights activists were arrested this month while conducting a fact-finding mission into alleged military abuses on the island province of Palawan.
The warrantless arrests claimed the activists illegally possessed firearms and explosives, security-related claims their affiliated human rights group and others observers have said are fabricated and false.
They, like scores of other activists, face an uncertain future as the Philippines tilts towards what some see as an emerging new dictatorship under populist President Rodrigo Duterte.
Karapatan, an acronym for Alliance of the Advancement of People’s Rights, a group that has campaigned for rights since the Ferdinand Marcos martial law dictatorship (1972-81), says the arrests of its members are increasingly par for the course.
Tinay Palabay, the group’s secretary general, says that 285 activists have been arrested and detained under the Duterte administration.
From June 2016 to March 2019, Palabay claims approximately 250 activists, many of them critical of the government’s lethal anti-drug war, have themselves been the victims of extrajudicial killings.
Karapatan is at the forefront of documenting alleged rights abuses under Duterte’s three-year-old government, notably at a time his administration has blocked international investigators from entering the country to do on-the-ground research.
Karapatan’s most recent human rights report from 2018 characterizes the government’s campaign to silence critical activists, students and opposition members, among others, as a “blueprint for dictatorship”, similar to the consolidation of absolute power under Marcos.
The human rights situation in the Philippines is under an intensifying international microscope, with the United Nations, International Criminal Court and Western governments all applying rising pressure on Duterte to hold perpetrators of abuses to account.
Since Duterte rose to power in mid-2016, his “war on drugs” campaign has come under particular scrutiny for the high number of extrajudicial killings it has incurred.
Last year, the local Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chairman Chito Gascon claimed that the campaign’s death toll could be as high as 27,000, a claim government officials have hotly contested as overstated and inaccurate.
The Philippines is home to a plethora of social movements and human rights networks that closely monitor and probe alleged state abuses, a testament to the nation’s hard-won fight for democracy.
Now, however, those same groups and their members are increasingly the ones being targeted for harassment and abuse.
Last year, a United Nations report tagged the Philippines, along with 37 other countries, as having “an alarming and shameful level of harsh reprisals and intimidation” against human rights defenders.
It’s a trend that has continued apace this year. A few days before the above-mentioned activists were arrested, three other rights-related researchers were also arrested and brutally beaten by security officials in public, according to witnesses in the Eastern Visayas region.
In August, an activist working with peasant groups in northern Ifugao province was shot and critically wounded in the face after being accused of being a communist sympathizer.
Palabay attributes the alarming trend to the formation of the Inter-Agency Legal Committee on Legal Action (IACLA), formed in October 2017, and the more draconian Executive Order (EO) 70 penned by Duterte last December.
The IACLA, she says, “has been in the business of planting evidence and producing false witnesses, tag-teaming with prosecutors and courts for the release of defective warrants, and the over-all concoction of baseless and ridiculous stories to justify illegal arrests.”
The EO, meanwhile, mandates the creation of a “National Task Force on the Local Communist Armed Conflict” to contend with the 50-year-old civil war against the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its New People’s Army (NPA) armed wing.
The Philippine army considers the NPA as a terrorist organization and treats its members as enemies of the state. But left-leaning activists are often wrongly labeled as collaborators or supporters, a practice known as “red-tagging”, that makes them vulnerable to state-sponsored attacks.
The new task force has “has intensified surveillance and harassment against human rights defenders,” says Palabay. “The conduct of this surveillance has been systematic, using all agencies of the state.”
Palabay says that Duterte has on six occasions called out Karapatan as an NPA “front organization” during live media broadcasts.
Apart from killings and arrests, officials have also endeavored to restrict critical organizations’ ability to raise funds.
Karapatan and four other organizations, Kadamay, Katribu and Rural Missionaries of the Philippines and the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, have all recently had their registrations with the Securities and Exchange Commission revoked, cutting their ability to legally raise funds.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon pointed to all of the groups as being “supportive and sympathetic” with the the CPP-NPA.
The same organizations have all faced harassment, intimidation and arrests for allegedly collaborating with the communist cause. Speculation of association is increasingly sufficient grounds to be considered a terrorist, activists say.
Since March, top security officials have also traveled to Europe in a diplomatic bid to convince international funding agencies to stop providing financial aid to organizations they accuse of aligning with the NPA.
Since May, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has also attempted to prove to the Supreme Court that both Karapatan and the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) have ties to the revolutionaries.
Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo has challenged the NUPL to provide evidence denying the accusations against them, and to publicly “condemn the NPA’s killing of innocents and civilians including women and children.”
It’s a propaganda tactic that aims to equate human rights defenders who track AFP abuses with terrorists, says Palabay.
“Since 2019, entire organizations have been targeted and maligned incessantly through petty efforts such as vandalisms, to actual threats of raids and an orchestrated junket to ‘red-tag’ and constrict the movement and machinery of human rights organizations,” she said.
The government’s rising use of “red-tagging” against activists is particularly dangerous in the current violent environment perpetuated by the war on drugs, according to the CHR.
“Labelling groups before an objective judgment violates the constitutional guarantee of presumption of innocence and may have serious implications on the security and movement of individuals and groups involved,” said the state-run institution.
Arevalo counters that the new anti-communism task force allows armed forces to implement “security, development and good governance with the help of other state agencies. We need to respond to the fact that so many of our countrymen are choosing to join and support the terrorists of the NPA.”
According to the task force’s “12 operational pillars” defined in the EO, the work of human rights defenders is seen as a direct hindrance to the AFP’s objectives against the “communist-terrorist groups”, or CTGs.
The document states categorically that the “campaign to defend human rights defenders is in its totality hardening the operational objectives against the CTG insurgents.”
Furthermore, the document states that human rights campaigns are “aimed to paralyze the police power of the state to address the CTG insurgency.”
Those official orders – and the recent rash of arrests and killings – are driving more and more activists underground. Karapatan has said that several activists have already taken sanctuary to escape open threats on their lives.
The activists who are still above-ground say they expect the situation to get worse before it gets better, particularly as a new Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill stalls in Congress.
The bill seeks to mandate the creation of an independent body to be known as the Human Rights Defenders Protection Committee, of which both Karapatan and NUPL would be among the groups tasked with nominating its members.
If the bill ever becomes law, which seems increasingly doubtful, the committee’s appointments would be finalized by the CHR.
Palabay says that many rights groups are also working to highlight their rising plight at a global level, including at the UN. They have appealed to rapporteurs and members of the UN Human Rights Council, among other groups and agencies, to probe the situation.
Palabay doesn’t expect those foreign channels to produce immediate results and says the most important push back will come from local grass roots movements that continue to call for accountability and justice.
“With one foot in the grave, we put our trust in the people’s movement and move forward despite challenges,” she said.