Building resistance through solidarity: International groups join call to stop the killings in the Philippines

As the brutal repression of those working peacefully for justice, peace and genuine development in the Philippines escalates and the climate of fear and impunity intensifies, resistance is building. Rights defenders and activists, lawyers, journalists and others refuse to be silenced or intimidated.

In the same way, the many solidarity groups outside the Philippines are making their voices heard louder than ever in condemnation of the rights violations being perpetrated and encouraged by the Duterte regime. In several online meetings they have joined together with their allies and comrades in the Philippines to protest at the killings and rights violations of rights defenders and express their solidarity with the victims.

Solidarity groups in Europe consider that they have an important role to play by constantly exposing the crimes of the Duterte regime and lobbying their governments and international bodies to maintain the pressure on the Duterte administration.

An all too familiar pattern of threats and harassment

In the course of August 2020, civil society in the Philippines and their supporters throughout the world were shocked at the killing of two human rights defenders in just one week.

One of the victims, Randall Echanis, was the deputy secretary general of the Peasant Movement of the Philippines, KMP. Aged 71, he had worked for agrarian reform and peasant rights for more than 50 years and had participated as a consultant in the peace talks between the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and the Government of the Philippines, particularly with regards agrarian reform and rural development. He had also been imprisoned under three Filipino presidents because of his work. Echanis had been heavily tortured before being killed together with a neighbour in his rented apartment in Quezon City, Metro Manila.

Echanis was buried on 17 August. That same day, Zara Alvarez, aged 39 and a single mother with an 11-year old daughter, was brutally shot dead near her home in Bacolod City on Negros Island. Zara was a research and advocacy officer for the Negros Island Health Integrated Program and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Council for Health and Development, a community organiser and a paralegal worker for Karapatan-Negros. She had worked for the rights of landless peasants and agricultural workers in Negros for many years, which led to her being imprisoned for almost two years under former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo between 2012 and 2014. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Zara had been coordinating and conducting relief operations as part of a community health program, despite receiving repeated threats to her life and safety.

Both Echanis and Alvarez had received regular threats in relation to their human rights work for years prior to being killed. Their names had been included on a list of 649 activists, human rights defenders, government critics and others that was drawn up in 2018 by the Department of Justice requesting a Manila court to declare them “terrorists” under the Human Security Act of 2007. Their names were later removed from the list along with most of the others but the threats and harassment by alleged State forces continued.

This strategy of “red-tagging” or labeling social activists and critics of the regime as communists is a particularly dangerous form of harassment since, under the current violently repressive regime, it essentially an invitation to state agents such as the police and military, to kill those listed with no fear of repercussions.

International pressure on Duterte is increasing

After these two most recent killings, messages of outrage and solidarity poured in, both from international civil society organisations and UN bodies. The numerous reactions show how the dramatic escalation in the numbers of extrajudicial killings of human rights and environmental defenders, along with the thousands of victims of Duterte’s ruthless “war on drugs,” is being closely monitored internationally.

In a reaction to the killings, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement stressing the need for “independent, thorough and transparent investigations into the killings, for those responsible to be held to account, for effective measures to be taken to protect other at-risk human rights defenders and to halt and condemn incitement to hatred against them.” She also called on the Government of the Philippines to ensure that the relevant agencies cooperate fully with investigations by the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, which the Duterte administration has so far refused to do.

On 30 June 2020, Bachelet presented to the UN Human Rights Council a damning report on the situation of human rights in the Philippines. It stated that her Office had verified the killings of at least 208 human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists between January 2015 and December 2019 and recommended that the Human Rights Council begin an investigation into the extrajudicial killings perpetrated in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign and other charges of human rights violations, including abuses against activists, lawyers, journalists, environmental defenders and indigenous peoples. Luxembourg was among the countries that spoke in support of the report at the meeting of the Human Rights Council.

In a follow up to the report, on 27 August 2020 a group of civil society organisations wrote to the member and observer States of the UN Human Rights Council urging them to adopt a resolution establishing an independent international investigative mechanism on extrajudicial executions and other human rights violations committed under the Duterte administration at its next session.

More recently, the European Parliament urged the Philippine government to “guarantee, in all circumstances, the physical and psychological integrity of all human rights defenders and journalists in the country, and to ensure that they can carry out their work in an enabling environment and without fear of reprisals” through a resolution voted upon on 16 September 2020 and supported by 626 out of the 685 lawmakers. It urged the EU and its member states to “support the adoption of a resolution at the ongoing 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent international investigation into human rights violations committed in the Philippines since 2016.”

As written by Zara Alvarez in a public letter while she was imprisoned: “Still, one voice is a noise, but more voices will become the voice of freedom, soon we will realize that everybody is singing the song of the people, taking a stand to end political persecution and demanding justice to all victims of human rights violations. Time will come that no amount of fear can stop us in cultivating everybody’s freedom.” ###

Written by Julie Smit, PCFS Europe. Photo from Anakbayan Europe.

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