At Ground Level | Repeal Anti-Terror Law, abolish the NTF-ELCAC

This was the top-of-mind step that Ian Fry, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, urged the Philippine government to take as he wound up a 10-day official visit in the country last Wednesday.

Why should the government do away with these two, now-conflated, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency instruments so dear to the state security forces? In a press conference, Fry explained:

“The government needs to create a clean slate around its approach to anti-terrorism and revise the laws to make them appropriate for the circumstances occurring now, and not to use the laws to harass, vilify and kill environmental human rights defenders.”

That concise statement reflects the insights, which impelled the UN independent expert to recommend the twin moves, derived from his consultations with civil society groups and indigenous peoples’ organizations over three days – on Nov. 7, 9, and 12.

And these insights were reinforced by what he saw and heard from the grassroots victims of harassment, vilification, intimidation and physical attacks by overzealous state security forces under the aegis of NTF-ELCAC when he visited the coastal urban-poor community of Baseco in Manila and the indigenous Tumandok community in Iloilo. In December 2020, combined police and military forces raided the latter community, which resulted in a massacre where nine Red-tagged IP leaders were killed and 17 others were arrested without warrants.

“I met with civil organizations who told me horrific stories on how they were treated,” Fry reported. “And in my recommendation to the government, I have suggested that they disband the [NTF]ELCAC because it is clear that (it) is operating beyond its original mandate.” He spoke of entire communities being red-tagged, and allegations that “private financial interest (is) driving ELCAC to do this.”

After hearing about cases of torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings of people, the special rapporteur, an international law expert, declared: “This is totally unacceptable and it seems the government has lost control of some of its military organizations and is moving beyond what is considerably reasonable.” He cited the testimonies of church leaders who were Red-tagged and their assets in banks ordered frozen, calling these actions “totally unreasonable.”

Emphasizing the need to investigate previous NTF-ELCAC operations, Fry said he suggested to the government to establish a “truth and reconciliation process to deal with the harm that has been caused by the military to members of the community.”

He also connected the establishment of a truth and reconciliation process to the repeal of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020. This, he explained, would allow people wrongly accused of “acts of terrorism” to seek redress from the misuse of what many critics call a “draconian law.”

Immediately reacting on Wednesday, National Security Adviser (and NTF-ELCAC co-vice chairperson along with Vice President Sara Duterte) Eduardo Año faulted the UN expert for making the twin recommendations “based on incomplete data.” In a press statement, he said: “Fry… has been given the freedom to move and inquire on matters related to his mandate. But apparently, due to reasons beyond us, he has not exercised this to its full potential. In the interest of fairness and justice, he should have raised his concerns with us to ensure that he has full appreciation of the body’s mandate, operations, and overall directions. Sadly, even if he had issues on the NTF-ELCAC that are relevant to his report, he did not find time to do so.”

When he spoke at the press conference, Fry had not yet written his formal report that he would present to the UN Human Rights Council in its next session in June 2024. Yet, he apparently deemed it important to put forward orally what he had in mind to write in his report – for both the public and the government to mull over – foremost of which are his recommendations to the government.

He made it clear, however, that his formal report would provide feedback to the Philippine government through communication or exchange of letters. Note also that by stating “it is clear that [NTF]-ELCAC is operating beyond its original mandate,” Fry indicated he had read and studied the pertinent document that Año mentioned.

The UN special rapporteur focused on the impacts on the people of how, in fact, the NTF-ELCAC – which, since 2019, has harnessed the national government and its various offices and agencies down to the barangay level – has implemented its mandate.

What has raised questions from the human rights community was Año’s assurance to Fry that the NTF-ELCAC “is a working and effective human rights mechanism founded on the principles of good and inclusive governance and we could have helped him define it in his study.” The human rights alliance Karapatan dismissed it as a “ludicrous claim, considering [NTF-ELCAC’s] track record of propagating lies and its long list of crimes against the Filipino people.”

Besides doing away with the anti-terrorism law and the counterinsurgency task force, Fry recommended to the government to support a proposed inquiry on Red-tagging by the Commission on Human Rights. He urged equal government support for a major judicial review of all cases against environmental human rights defenders who have been prosecuted for cases emanating from allegations by the military.

Reforming the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, an agency mandated to promote and defend IP rights and welfare, was another recommendation. Specifically, Fry called for the establishment of a grievance mechanism to hear complaints regarding the harm to indigenous communities, their livelihood and their very lives caused by inappropriate development projects and military operations.

As regards environmental protection, Fry pushed for the enforcement of a moratorium on all reclamation projects in the country. As well as supporting proposals to improve the Climate Change Act, he warned that the opening of more mines for resource extraction would lead to more human rights violations, displacements of indigenous communities, and serious contamination of the country’s river systems.

Published in Philippine Star
November 18, 2023

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