Rights defenders decry DOJ red-tagging stance

“Remulla tells UNHRC: Red-tagging part of democracy,” a Philippine STAR front-page news headline said on Oct. 12. The news story’s lead paragraph reads:

“If critics can lambast government policies, the government has a right to criticize them back in the form of red-tagging, the Department of Justice (DOJ) told a United Nations Human Rights Committee session [in Geneva] as panel members raised concerns over the perils of red-baiting in a democratic country.”

Claiming that red-tagging as a response to critics is the “essence of democracy,” Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla told the panel of UN experts: “[It] is a term that has to be thought about by everyone here. If [critics] can dish it out, then they should be able to take it, especially if they are supporting those who are promoting the death of our people, our policemen, civilian, youth and children.” With that heavily-loaded statement, he maintained that red-tagging “is criticism [of] people who also criticize.”

The panel, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to conduct a second review of the Philippine government’s performance in implementing the International Convention on Civil and Political Right – the first was done 10 years ago – heard Remulla’s presentation on Oct. 11-12.

Earlier, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR, headed by Michelle Bachelet, who retired recently) had informed the UNHRC about “continued reports of harassments, threats, arrests, attacks, red-tagging against civil society actors [nongovernmental organizations]” in the Philippines. It urged the government to conduct “prompt, impartial, thorough, transparent investigations into all killings and alleged violations of international HR law and humanitarian law, so as to prosecute violators and provide remedies to the victims and their families.”

Quickly, the United Nations panel and the international community were urged by a network of faith-based and human rights groups to reject Remulla’s stance.

Red-tagging “has no place in a democratic and civilized society,” said the Philippine Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Watch, which engages in the UNHRC review process.

What Remulla said, they noted, was a “brazen official admission of the practice,” which not only “encourage[s] and normalize[s] red-tagging but also brandish[es] it as an institutionalized and orchestrated method of the government in dealing with perceived ‘political critics’.”

At the end of president Duterte’s term, UPR Watch said, besides 801 political prisoners there were 442 human rights defenders (HRDs) who became victims of extrajudicial killings after having been red-tagged “by the state, its agents, proxies, supporters and enablers.”

It didn’t stop there. In the first 100 days of the Marcos Jr. administration, 10 civilians (mostly peasants, including a 9-year-old girl) were killed, four others were abducted and remain missing, and at least 37 persons were arbitrarily arrested and detained. All of them had been red-tagged online and offline.

“Red-tagging, especially by state forces and their adjuncts, has dire consequences on persons, families, organizations and communities. Feigning ignorance on these consequences and packaging these threats as mere exercise of freedom of expression are clear signals of a policy of tolerance for human rights violations and impunity,” UPR Watch asserted.

With justice remaining elusive and violations continuing unabated even after Duterte, the network vowed:

“We are determined to belabor the obvious – that with an administration that has not indicated any commitment, sincerity nor political will to commit to justice and accountability, it is imperative to hold our ground, push back and demand for protection of our rights, even as we help enlighten those who are open to see through the razzle-dazzle of demagogic rhetoric by our supposed protectors.”

On its part, Karapatan (the alliance mainly monitoring the local human rights situation) reminded Remulla of the findings of an en banc public inquiry by the Commission on Human Rights, then chaired by the late Jose Luis “Chito” Gascon, held in September 2019, on the situation of human rights defenders. Resource persons from civil society organizations and from the government were invited to testify.

(“Human rights defenders” is a term used to identify people who, individually or with others, act to promote and protect human rights. They include members of civil society organizations, journalists, lawyers, representatives of marginalized sectors, members of the academe and all others who engage in activities for the fulfillment of basic human rights.

(A declaration on their rights and responsibilities was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1999. Among the tasks HRDs perform are: to investigate and report on human rights violations; provide support to ensure the fulfillment of international treaty obligations by state parties; lobby for legislative and judicial reforms; mobilize and shape public opinion on human rights; secure accountability for HRVs.)

In its report on that public inquiry in 2019, the CHR deplored that red-tagging and red-baiting discredit and delegitimize the reports and valid concerns sent by the human rights defenders to international bodies. It said:

“Such practices amount to intimidation, discourage engagement with international bodies and prevent HRDs from accessing assistance and remedies available to them through international human rights mechanisms.”

The program manager and legal counsel of the International Service for Human Rights, who observed the CHR inquiry, made this statement:

“The UN Declaration on HRDs developed over 20 years now sets international standards for the promotion and protection of HRDs. Unfortunately, the testimonies presented to you (CHR) in the last days show little evidence to suggest there has been willingness by the Philippine Government to embrace international perspectives on the protection of HRDs.”

The observation was welcomed by the CHR: “After a careful study of the testimonies and evidence given by the resource persons during the inquiry, as well as news articles related to the various issues brought to light, the Commission agrees with the foregoing observation.”

In its conclusions, the report pointed out that the government failed to adopt the UN Declaration on HRDs and “purposely engages in acts that frustrate the fulfillment of the rights provided therein.”

The Philippine human rights community thinks so too.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
October 15, 2022

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