Philippines Found Guilty of Massive Human Right Violations

Photograph Source: REY BANIQUET/PPD – Public Domain

Guilty of massive violations of international humanitarian law! That was the unanimous verdict handed down at the conclusion of the two-day International People’s Tribunal (IPT) regarding human rights in the Philippines held recently in Brussels, Belgium on May 17-18, 2024. On trial were the governments of past president Rodrigo Duterte, current president Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., and the government of the United States of America for its support and complicity with these regimes.

The IPT is a quasi-judicial mechanism whereby evidence is presented to a panel of jurors to render judgment on specific charges, in this instance war crimes committed in the conduct of the civil war in the Philippines. The Jurors included: Lennox Hinds, Professor of Law at Rutgers University and former legal counsel for the African National Congress; Suzanne Adely President of the National Lawyers Guild (U.S.); Severine De Laveleye, member of the Chamber of Representatives of Belgium; Julen Arzuraga Gumuzio, member of the Basque Parliament; and Archbishop Joris Vercamen, former member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.

Along with the distinguished panel of jurors, we had the opportunity to be present to hear harrowing testimony from 15 witnesses detailing widespread human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law committed by the Philippine government and its military forces. We heard first-hand accounts of extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, harassment, and indiscriminate aerial bombing of indigenous communities defending their ancestral lands from mining and corporate plunder. These included testimony from Brandon Lee, a U.S. citizen activist in Ifugao province who was shot by suspected state agents after being “red-tagged” (labeled as a communist without any proof), threatened, and surveilled. Lee survived and is now a quadriplegic, but in his words, “while I can no longer use my body, I can continue to use my voice” to speak up for justice. Ariel Casilao spoke of the brutal murder of Peace Consultant Randall Echanis in his home while he slept in August of 2020.

Jonila Castro, along with a colleague Jhed Tamano, both environmental activists working to save Manila Bay testified she was forcibly abducted by the military in September 2023. After 17 days of interrogation and cruel torture the two were paraded by the military as captured operatives of the New People’s Army insurgency at a public press conference. It was here that the two recanted their forced confessions and exposed their kidnapping by the military. This was another example of civilian activists being targeted by the military. Also documented in graphic detail was the murder of nine indigenous leaders who opposed a massive dam project that would have destroyed the livelihoods of the people of Panay Island. (Panay is where Siegfred hails from.)

Many of the victims testified that there is a failure to distinguish between civilians and combatants in the conduct of the Philippine government’s war on the revolutionary movement. The counterinsurgency campaign deliberately targeted civilians resulting in systematic harassment. The Tribunal found the Philippine Government acted with impunity and complete disregard for International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Conventions.

Siegfred Deduro, an author of this report, is also a victim of the Philippine Governments disregard for human rights. A long-time activist and former Member of Congress, Deduro and his family were red-tagged, with death threats so constant and serious that they had to hide for seven months and ultimately flee the Philippines. Recently the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that red-tagging was a violation of human rights in a landmark case which Deduro was a plaintiff.  The high court rules that linking red-tagging and guilt by association jeopardizes a person’s fundamental right to life, liberty, and security.  While the Supreme Court ruling is welcome, the threats continue and it remains unsafe for Deduro to return to the Philippines.

A health worker and human rights activist, Zara Alvares, who earlier filed a petition for a writ of amparo (protection from extrajudicial killing or disappearance), was nonetheless murdered. Even development workers and organizations working with government institutions are not spared from red-tagging and harassment by methods such as the freezing of bank accounts.  Such draconian and brutal tactics are being widely used by the Marcos, Jr. regime. The question remains, will the Philippine military and police comply with the ruling?

While political in nature, a People’s Tribunal is both an important venue for airing legitimate grievances of human rights victims as well as laying important groundwork for future legal actions while also gaining support from allies. In 2009, the International People’s Tribunal regarding Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange found the U.S. military guilty of ecocide and provided key documentation ultimately leading to justice for some victims. The verdict of the Philippine Human Rights IPT has been delivered to those on trial plus numerous international bodies demanding future actions by bodies such as the International Criminal Court.

The U.S.’s moral, political, and financial support for the Philippine Military and its security forces have enabled these crimes against the Filipino people, to persist and proliferate.  The U.S. cannot claim to be a country that cherishes human rights while turning a blind-eye to these horrific human right abuses.