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Attacks Mount Against Philippine Human Rights Advocates

Photograph Source: SIMEON CELI JR./PPD – Public Domain

Approximately 300,000 or one-fourth of Hawaii’s population is Filipino. Hawaii’s substantial economic, personal, and family ties with the Philippines means that all of us here have a great stake in what is happening there. The government of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been threatening and attacking a growing number of human rights advocates, labor, church and community organizers, and indigenous people and the poor.

Over the past three years, an estimated 27,000 Filipinos, mostly from poor communities, have been killed without trial by police, military officers, and unknown assailants in the name of the Duterte government’s so-called “war on drugs.” The killings continue on a daily basis despite domestic and international condemnation.

Human rights defenders who have called for an end to the killings have been harassed and detained, including Senator Leila de Lima, jailed for over two years on politically-motivated and false drug charges. News outlet Rappler and its CEO Maria Ressa have been harassed by 11 government complaints, and Ressa, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, and several other journalists and human rights lawyers have been publicly accused of working to destabilize the government.

Last November human rights attorney Ben Ramos was shot and killed; he was the Secretary-General of the National Union of Peoples Lawyers in Negros. At least 34 human rights and peoples’ lawyers have been killed since 2016 when Duterte became president. More than 60 farmers have been killed in Negros alone, including the 14 farmers massacred in Negros Oriental in April; over 205 killings of farmers have been reported nationwide over the past 3 years.

In early 2019, peace talks consultant Randy Malayao was assassinated. Last May 1 Archad Ayao, an investigator for the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, was shot dead in Cotabato City, southern Philippines, by an unidentified gunman. On April 22, human rights worker and local official Bernardino Patigas was gunned down in Escalante City, Negros Occidental. Hours later, several of his colleagues in the Karapatan human rights organization, including Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay, received threatening text messages from an unknown person warning them that they are targeted to be killed this year.

Besides direct physical violence, human rights defenders have been “red-tagged” and called “communists” by the Philippine military officials, including Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. She and others have been accused of involvement in “terrorist activities” due to their human rights work. Groups that the Duterte government has “red-tagged” include Karapatan, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, the Ibon Foundation, the Alliance of Health Workers, and the National Union of People’s Lawyers, which has been giving legal assistance to political prisoners, activists, and relatives of victims of extrajudicial executions sanctioned by Duterte.

The Duterte regime has failed to conduct prompt, effective, and impartial investigations into the attacks on human rights defenders, and to bring those responsible to justice. Amnesty International (AI) recently called on the government to do so, but there has been little response. AI has also called on the government to cease “red-tagging” and threatening human rights advocates and organizations and to protect them from harm.

It is time that we in Hawaii speak up and insist that our representatives in Congress –Senators Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, and Representatives Tulsi Gabbard and Ed Case — work to halt all aid to the Philippine military and police forces while these atrocities, threats and jailings continue. Last year, the U.S. government provided $184.5 million in economic aid to the Philippine military and national police, the main perpetrators of the atrocities.

Our Congressional representatives should also urge the US State Department to insist that the Philippine government investigate these killings and stop its attacks against journalists and human rights advocates and cease its extra-judicial killings. These are crimes against humanity and gravely threaten the safety and security of the Filipino people.

This commentary first appeared in the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle.

JOHN WITECK is a retired labor unionist and human resources who currently works part-time for the State Department of Education and is a lecturer at the Honolulu Community College. He has been hosted on four occasions by labor, community, and human rights organizations in the Philippines and attended International Solidarity events. He edited the bimonthly periodical Philippine Labor Alert for over a decade. SEIJI YAMADA is a family physician practicing and teaching in Hawaii.

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