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    Stop vilification of Human Rights Defenders in the Philippines

    May 25, 2019

    H E Mr. Rodrigo Duterte

    President of the Republic

    Malacañang Palace,

    JP Laurel St., San Miguel,

    Manila, Philippines 1005

    E-mail: op@president.gov.ph

    Stop Vilification of Human Rights Defenders in the Philippines

    Dear Excellency,

    We call on your government to put a halt to the series of vilification and smear campaigns against Karapatan, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, Ibon Foundation, alternative learning centers for indigenous children in Mindanao, and other people’s organizations, under its counterinsurgency program Oplan Kapayapaan (Operational Plan Peace).

    These campaigns are instigated under your Executive Order No. 70 issued last December 4, 2018, which created a “National Task Force (NTF) to end local communist armed conflict.”

    Karapatan is a non-stock, non-profit, non-governmental organization that has conducted human rights advocacy, monitoring and documentation in the Philippines since 1995. It is a member of the Civicus World Alliance for Citizen Participation, the SOS-Torture Network of the World Organization Against Torture, and, recently, of FORUM-ASIA. Its officers are involved in various feminist platforms such as the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development.

    IBON Foundation is a non-stock, non-profit development organization that has conducted research and education since 1978. The Rural Missionaries of the Philippines is a non-profit, non-governmental organization, inter-diocesan and inter-congregational in character of men and women religious, priests and lay, founded in 1969. It acts as the mission partners of the Association of the Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP). The Mindanao Interfaith Service Foundation is a non-stock, non-profit, religious institution serving the marginalized Lumad, Muslim and Christians in Mindanao, founded in 1983.

    We strongly condemn the NTF’s reported conduct starting in February 2019 in Europe, where military and intelligence officials wrongfully labelled and vilified these Philippine human rights organizations as terrorists and communist fronts. These dangerous slanders are a clear reprisal to their human rights work, specifically on their advocacies and reports regarding the dismal human rights situation under your administration. Your government’s repeated denials instead of initiating investigations and addressing the rampant human rights abuses have reinforced the actions of human rights violators and enabled gross impunity in the country.

    The attacks on the credibility of these Filipino human rights organisations in Europe aims to dissuade international actors from providing resources to human rights work, research and humanitarian support for these organizations and their communities. This situation imperils the many efforts of human rights defenders and various organizations to access and inform the international community on cases of rights violations and the over-all human rights situation in the Philippines and their initiatives to provide services for marginalized indigenous, peasant and urban poor communities.

    More so, these forms of terrorist-labelling and red-tagging have resulted in the murder of human rights defenders, criminalization of their work and beliefs, illegal arrests and detention, torture and other violations of the people’s right to uphold and defend rights, to form organizations and to conduct human rights work.  In his 2008 Report to the UN Human Rights Council, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings Prof. Philip Alston recommended that the Philippine government should stop such vilification as it has resulted to such grave violations.

    But because Prof. Alston’s recommendations have been largely unheeded by succeeding administrations, these forms of attacks continue, despite the UN Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders and the European Union Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders.

    These attacks are in the context of the extrajudicial killings spawned by your government’s drug war and counter-insurgency campaigns, the political persecution of vocal critics of your government such as Sen. Leila de Lima and former Supreme Court Justice Marilou Sereno, the attacks on press freedom as shown by the arrest and detention of Rapplers Maria Ressa and cyber-attacks against online news sites, the martial law declaration in Mindanao, the state of emergency declared in three other regions enabling more military presence in communities, attempts to legislate to undermine human rights, militarization of the civilian bureaucracy and more recently, the issuance of Securities and Exchange Commission Memorandum 15 arbitrarily classifying and regulating the operations of non-profit organizations. These smear and vilification campaigns contribute to the over-all trend of shrinking civil society space and the worsening climate of impunity in the Philippines.

    We wholeheartedly support the work of Karapatan, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, Ibon Foundation, Mindanao Interfaith Service Foundation, and the alternative learning centres for indigenous children in Mindanao. We call on your government to stop such attacks and vilification campaigns using false, baseless, and malicious allegations against staunch advocates of human rights. Finally, we urge your government to instead allow initiatives of civil society, governments and intergovernmental bodies to independently investigate the human rights situation in the Philippines.

    Accounts of the incidents:

    On December 4, 2019, you signed Executive Order No. 70, creating a national task force (NTF) to end local communist armed conflict and institutionalizing the so-called whole of nation approach. In February 2019, the NTF and other government officials went on a trip in Europe.

    On February 14, 2019, this Philippine government delegation went to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to meet with the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearance. In the sidelines of this meeting, Brig. Gen. Antonio Parlade, Jr., assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said: “Yung pinanggalingan ng data eh may ibang interes, may ibang agenda. It’s really to destroy the government. And we believe, talagang ganun kasi, ah kasi nakita na natin yang trend na yan, information coming from Ibon, from Karapatan – these are all organizations of the Communist Party of the Philippines.” (The sources of data have other interests and agenda, that is to really destroy government. We believe that it is so because we already saw the trend where information is coming from, from Ibon, from Karapatan, these are all organizations of the Communist Party of the Philippines.)

    On February 18, 2019, the delegation reportedly went to Brussels, Belgium, to meet with Belgian government officials, members of the European Union Parliament and Gilles de Kerchove, EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator of the European Council. In this meeting, government officials referred to Ibon, Karapatan and the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines as front organizations of the CPP. They called on the EU and other member states to stop releasing funds to these groups.

    In an article in the Philippine News Agency (PNA), Parlade was quoted to have said: “Many of this money was channelled by these NGOs to other organizations whose only objective is to portray President (Rodrigo) Duterte as a tyrant and his administration as oppressive.” He said, “What we wanted the EU and UN (United Nations) to also know is that the CPP and its front organizations, like Karapatan, are consistent and persistent in providing UN and European governments with all these false data.”

    The NTF also met with the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In this meeting, Parlade again claimed that some of the funds provided by the Belgian government finances CPP front organizations including Karapatan, Ibon Foundation, Mindanao Interfaith Service Foundation, and RMP. Gunnar Weigand, Managing Director of European External Action Service and European Commission South East Division of Development and Cooperation, said that they will monitor donors to the country and help with the audit of these funds. In a news report, Alex Paul Monteagudo, Director General of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, further alleged that “these front organizations have mastered the art of sourcing and diverting funds to buy weapons and train children to become warriors in their alleged schools.”

    Under Proclamation No. 374, signed in December 2017, under Section 3 and 15 of the Republic Act 10168 or the Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suppression Act of 2012, you designated the CPP-NPA and all other designated persons/organizations as terrorist organizations. This proclamation allows authorities to freeze and forfeit property and funds of members of front organizations of CPP-NPA and those that may be funding or providing financial assistance to these organizations. The circumstance may lead to warrantless arrests of said persons.

    On February 21, 2019, the Philippine government through National Security Council Deputy Director General Vicente Agdamag handed over to Ambassador Evan P. Garcia, Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN) and other International Organizations in Geneva, documents of alleged complaints of several indigenous people’s groups, represented by Mindanao Indigenous Peoples Council for Peace and Development, against the Communist Party of the Philippines-New Peoples’ Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF).

    They again cited IBON Foundation, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, Mindanao Interfaith Service Foundation, and KARAPATAN as alleged front organizations of the CPP-NPA-NDF in their complaints. The Philippine government delegation said these organizations are the source of accounts of human rights violations in the Philippines, which they called false narratives.

    The Philippine delegation also maligned United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz in their so-called letter-complaint to the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. The delegation’s letter was quoted in a news report: “It must be noted that the current UN Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz seems to have never lifted a finger to intervene in these communist terrorist groups’ (CTGs) violations and has rather trained her attention to government forces who have been trying to defend the human rights of the IPs.”

    In an opinion post, Tauli-Corpuz said she has not received any communications regarding the NPA. “We also address non-state actors, such as corporations and non-state armed groups when we receive communications about them and if we have addresses,” she added. The UN expert also said that “the main actors we monitor are States. The duty-bearers of human rights are States. Thus, the main mandate of Special Rapporteurs is to monitor the duty bearers. So far, I received no communications regarding the NPA.”

    Tauli-Corpuz was included among 600 in the proscription filed by Department of Justice in February 2018 at a Manila Regional Trial Court declaring CPP-NPA as a terrorist organization. On January 2019, the Manila RTC Branch 19 trimmed down the list to just eight, excluding that of Tauli-Corpuz.

    On February 22, 2019, the Philippine delegation conducted a briefing at the Concordia Room at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. According to government reports, representatives of at least 20 countries including Italy, Pakistan, Egypt, Thailand, Brazil, France, US, Croatia, Canada, Uruguay, Mexico, Switzerland, Nigeria were briefed by Senior Supt. Omega Jireh Fidel of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Directorate for Investigation and Detective Management; Brig. Gen. Antonio Parlade, Jr, assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines; and Undersecretary Joel M. Sy Egco, Executive Director of the Presidential Task Force on Media Security. The panelists and Garcia pressed that correct information on human rights in the Philippines could only come from the government itself and tried to persuade senior officials of UN representatives that the Philippines has legal mechanisms to address human rights violations.

    At the same time as the UN trip, Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) officials went on a tour to Brussels and Geneva in a “Press Freedom Caravan” to defend President Duterte’s stand on issues such as the cases of enforced disappearances and counterinsurgency programs.

    However, in the Philippine government’s October 2018 risk assessment report on non-profit organizations (NPOs), the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Social Welfare and Development stated that there is no evidence proving that non-profit organizations (NPOs) are being used for “terrorist funding.” The report noted that previous accusations are based on hearsay. The government’s own agencies stated that NPOs are not the preferred “mode of raising funds” for so-called threat groups. The same report says that the abuse of NPOs were actually from politicians, as in the case of NPOs being used “as conduit for money laundering in the PDAF scam”.

    In a statement released on February 19, 2019, Karapatan said: “Our attention has been called regarding the conduct of military and intelligence officers who make rounds in diplomatic missions to red-tag specific organizations and dissuade them from providing resources that go into the campaigns and initiatives of said groups. This situation puts into peril the many efforts of human rights defenders and various organizations to provide services for the many that are marginalized and neglected by past and present governments. Years of hard work and concrete actions to respond to these specific needs are being maligned and in danger of being overturned. Their operation is gradual and surreptitious, but altogether perilous to the movement, capacity, and spaces being maximized by civil society.

    “Victims are instead branded as terrorists and mechanism to safeguard people’s rights pushed forward mainly by the efforts of civil society are being co-opted and twisted in this government’s desperate PR stunt,” they further argued.

    In a statement released on February 24, 2019, Karapatan said that through “a national task force composed of militarists and mercenary hacks, it is promoting a most unbelievable lie – that government is correct and everyone else is wrong. What is however apparent is its elaborate effort to hide the injustices apparent in the country.”

    Karapatan further said: “Together with other human rights and civil society organizations, and even international human rights experts and UN officials, we have been repeatedly maligned in the government’s vicious terrorist-labelling campaign and have faced reprisals due to our work exposing State-perpetrated human rights violations and demanding for justice and accountability. We highly urge government to stop whining and acting like the government is the aggrieved party and start addressing these issues. We remind the Duterte government that the State is the primary duty-bearer in the promotion, protection and advancement of human rights. We are certain you might have already forgotten. Efforts to falsely accuse groups and journalists raising these issues will not erase the atrocious crimes already committed and are continuously being committed by State security forces. However, these forms of terrorist-labelling and red-tagging have also resulted in the killings of human rights defenders, criminalization of their work and beliefs and illegal detention, torture and other violations of the people’s right to uphold and defend rights, to form organizations and to conduct human rights work.”

    In our April 1, 2019 statement, Karapatan expressed openness to the impartial and participative audit of the European Union, including the Belgian government. To wit: “We, as rights-holders and human rights defenders, are receptive to such queries, in the spirit of meaningful dialogue, transparency and accountability. We are confident with what we are, and we are ready to face any question on our work, that is in accordance to international and local human rights standards.

    “Our human rights workers, all doing voluntary work, toil through day and night, even at great risk to their lives and security, to assist victims of rights violations and their families, including victims of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arrests, torture, forced evacuation, among others. We are not terrorists. We do not support terrorist activities through our projects and work — all of which are well-documented, accounted for and independently audited.” 

    Also in a statement, the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines said: “We condemn in the highest terms this slander of our organization. We reiterate that our commitment to serve the rural poor drives us to provide programs for them including literacy and numeracy for Lumad children, livelihood programs, relief and rehabilitation, training and education for rural communities. This is definitely alarming as it can be used as justification to go after rural missionaries, priests, sisters and lay workers, and so we urge our fellow Christians to condemn these preposterous accusations and echo the call to end the attack against rural poor and peace advocates.”

    Karapatan and RMP have filed complaints before the Commission on Human Rights regarding these attacks and vilification by State forces. Unfortunately, the AFP and Parlade have continued their smear campaign against Karapatan and many other human rights defenders.

    We urge you and your government

    The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines therefore urges you and your government to stop the vilification and smear campaigns, through red-tagging and terrorist-labelling, against human rights defenders, their organizations and communities.

    We urge you and your government to recall Executive Order No. 70 and its so-called whole of nation approach and stop all activities emanating from this order, including the smear campaigns against human rights activists.

    We urge you to withdraw the counterinsurgency program Oplan Kapayapaan, which victimizes innocent and unarmed civilians, and criminalizes the work of human rights defenders.

    We urge instead that your government prioritize the enactment and full implementation of a Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill that will give legal recognition and safeguard rights defenders in the conduct of their work, in accordance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders.

    Finally, we urge you and your government to adhere to and respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and all major Human Rights instruments that it is a party and signatory.

    Yours sincerely,

     

    Peter Murphy

    Chairperson, Global Council,

    International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines

     

    Cc:          Cc Mr Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General, United Nations; UN Special Rapporteur on EJK; DFAT Desk; Senator Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs; Senator Penny Wong; Senator Richard Di Natale, Andrew Wilkie MHR; Julia Dean; Ret Gen Carlito G Galvez Jr, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process; Ret Maj Gen Delfin Lorenzana, Secretary, Dept of Defence; Mr Menardo Guevarra, Secretary, Department of Justice; Mr. Jose Luis Martin Gascon, Chairperson, Commission on Human Rights.

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