Sixteen years ago, alarmed over the rising incidents of extrajudicial killing of persons engaged in defending and promoting human rights in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, an independent advocacy group founded Front Line Defenders (FLD) in Dublin, Ireland. Its specific aim: to protect human rights defenders facing risks to their lives or safety as they work non-violently for “any and all” of the rights enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Such defenders or HRDs are engaged in a broad range of political and social activism for the rights of the poor, for the environment, etc.
This week Front Line Defenders focuses attention on the Philippines. In an article it published on May 16, titled “President Duterte must no longer turn a blind eye to the fate of human rights defenders,” FLD cites extrajudicial killing as the gravest threat facing Filipino activists. Outside of the Americas, it notes, “the Philippines has already become the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a human rights defender, in terms of the number of reported killings.”
FLD’s sharp comments were based on the outcome of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s third-cycle Universal Periodic Review of the country’s human rights situation last May 8.
Between the second-cycle UPR (of 2012) and the recent 2017 review, there was an almost threefold increase in the number of UNHRC member states that showed concern over activist killings. In the 2012 UPR only four countries raised the issue on attacks and killings of human rights defenders: France, Ireland, Norway, and the United Kingdom, which submitted five official recommendations. In the May 8 review, however, 11 member states called for the establishment of a protection mechanism for HRDs, saying the Philippine government “should provide a safe and enabling environment” for their work. The 11 nations are: Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.
In 2012, FLD points out, the Philippine government (then under the Aquino administration) accepted the recommendations on protecting HRDs from EJK and enforced disappearance (ED), its delegation having committed, during the review, to address these problems. However, it merely acknowledged the recommendation pertaining to cooperation with the UN special rapporteur on the situation of HRDs.
Despite these assurances, EJKs and “targeted attacks” on HRDs have continued, said FLD. And in its 2017 report to the UNHRC, the Duterte administration didn’t even mention the risks facing them or any measure it had taken for their protection. That omission demonstrates “how little progress has been made in implementing the recommendations over the past five years,” it added.
Some member states also raised the “dire need” to recognize the “positive and legitimate work” accomplished by the local defenders of human rights, reflecting increased international awareness of the dangers that they have faced in recent years. Prior to the 2017 review, FLD had submitted a stakeholders’ report recommending that the government protect HRDs by taking “effective action” to: 1) investigate and end the killings; 2) cease judicial harassments (overt surveillance, filing of trumped-up charges); 3) review restrictive laws; and 4) recognize the positive and legitimate role of human rights defenders in society.
Since 2012, FLD observes, there has been a marked deterioration in the rule of law, deeply affecting the ability of HRDs to carry out their work. The organization attributed this to the prevailing climate of impunity, the administration’s pursuance of the so-called drug war, and President Duterte’s ‘hostile rhetoric against HRDs and civil society members.” It warned against creating “a situation in which the killing of HRDs is seen as an acceptable state response.”
What’s the Philippine record on the extrajudicial killing of human rights defenders?
In a recent letter to Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of HRDs, Karapatan conveyed the following data: 474 HRDs were killed during Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s presidency (2001-2010); 139 during the succeeding Aquino administration; and 33 so far under Duterte (from July 2016 to April 30, 2017). All together, 646 human rights defenders were slain over a 16-year period.
Of the 33 HRD killings recorded under the Duterte administration, 15 happened in the first two months of 2017. Most of those targeted in the recent spate of EJKs were defending peasant rights to land, indigenous people’s rights, and the preservation of the environment. In a recent statement, Karapatan says at least 55 peasants and indigenous tribal members had been killed as of April 30 (presumably including the 33 HRDs), citing AFP attacks in the provinces of Quezon, Batangas, Pangasinan, Bohol, and Masbate.
In its May 16 article, FLD decries the fact that although 45 of 47 UNHRC member states have urged the Duterte government to investigate and stop the killings in its “war on drugs,” its delegation failed to make any commitment to stop the killings or to conduct independent investigation and hold the perpetrators accountable. The HRD extrajudicial killings weren’t even part of the picture.
“Now that the lethal environment facing HRDs has come under international scrutiny,” FLD asserts, “the Duterte government must put an end to these killings (and) properly address as a matter of urgency” the recommendations by the UNHRC member states and civil society organizations.
Expect the international community and civil society organizations to keep up the pressure on the Duterte government to confront its human rights record. In September, the government is due to make its official response to the member states’ recommendations during the UNHRC 36th regular session in Geneva.
Published in The Philippine Star
May 20, 2017