The UN experts urged the authorities to carry out prompt, impartial and independent investigations into the growing number of threats and killings of rights defenders to hold perpetrators to account and to fight impunity.
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – Amid reports of killings and death threats against human rights defenders in the Philippines, two United Nations Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders and extrajudicial executions called on the Philippine government to adopt urgent measures to protect the life of rights defenders and to ensure they are able to carry out their important work.
The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders defines human rights defenders as those who seek the promotion and protection of civil and political rights as well as the promotion, protection and realization of economic, social and cultural rights.
In a statement posted at its website, the UN experts said that a number of cases have been reported to them involving death threats and, in the worst of cases, killings of human rights defenders since the killing of Fr. Fausto Tentorio in Mindanao last year.
Tentorio, a Catholic Italian missionary, was killed inside the compound of a local Church, October 17 by suspected state agents. Human rights group Karapatan reported that under the two-year term of President Benigno Aquino III, there have been 95 of victims of extrajudicial killings. Recent cases include the murder of Dutch missionary Willem Geertman and Romualdo Palispis, chair of Justice and Peace Action Group (JPAG). Karapatan also reported the killing of Arnolfo Vaflor, a member of an affiliate of the National Federation of Sugar Workers in Negros Occidental on July 9.
“Many of the cases involve individuals and organizations working to defend the right to a healthy environment,” said Margaret Sekaggya, Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders. “Disputes over land rights and campaigns against mining and dam projects infringing on the rights of local communities tend to be sensitive, and those defending such rights are often met with violence.”
While acknowledging the considerable economic interests present in this context, “the Government of the Philippines has the duty to protect and ensure that other actors respect the rights of these human rights defenders,” Sekkagya said.
Meanwhile, Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, noted that many of the death threats and killings taking place appear to be perpetrated by paramilitary groups, death squads and corporate security guards.
“The Philippines is required to protect its population against such groups, and its Government has a positive obligation to take effective measures to protect the right to life. Failure to do so is a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” Heyns said. “We call upon the Government to urgently enact appropriate measures to this end.”
The UN experts also urged the authorities to carry out prompt, impartial and independent investigations into the growing number of threats and killings of rights defenders to hold perpetrators to account and to fight impunity.
Both UN experts urged the Philippine government to implement the recommendations of Prof. Philip Alston, former Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions after his 2007 visit to the Philippines.
They also called upon the authorities to respond positively to the request of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders to visit the country in order “to assist the Government in improving the volatile situation of human rights defenders in the Philippines.”
In a statement, Karapatan affirmed Sekaggya’s observation that many of the victims are those defending the rights of local communities where there are disputes over land rights and campaigns against mining and dam projects.
“Among the 95 victims, 43 were rights workers in various organizations and institutions. Many are farmers, indigenous peoples and environmental activists. The communities opposing anti-people projects are victimized through threats, harassment, torture, and repression by the AFP and paramilitary groups. This is the real purpose of Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan – to quell legitimate people’s opposition and enable the plunder of the country’s resources at the expense of the people’s economic rights,” Cristina Palabay, Karapatan spokeswoman, said.
“The series of attacks and violence against organized communities and human rights defenders and the latest wave of killings of human rights and environmental activists, like Romualdo Palispis, Geertman and Vaflor indicate the heightening terror and violence instigated by state security forces and the Aquino government,” Palabay said.
She cited the serious cases of rights violations brought about by militarization of organized communities especially in the Bondoc Peninsula; the illegal arrest based on trumped-up charges against Makabayan coordinator and lay church worker Agnes Mesina; and the indiscriminate firing at the office of Bayan Muna in Catarman, Northern Samar.