In defense of human rights defenders

(Statement for the International Human Rights Day 2017)

President Rodrigo Duterte recently announced that he is ordering the arrest of not only armed communist rebels, but also of all members of so-called leftist ‘legal fronts’. He is simply equating these non-armed leftist organizations to terrorists, and therefore should be treated as criminals. His pronouncement came a few weeks before the commemoration of the International Day of Human Rights on December 10.

Duterte’s claim that these organizations are seeking to topple the government and sow terror among the people are baseless accusations. In truth, the members of progressive groups are the ones helping the marginalized sectors of society and giving the basic services often deprived by government agencies.

In the Philippines where the police and military are the number one human rights violators, and their Commander in Chief emboldens them to commit those atrocities, human rights defenders are the people’s last line of defense. However, the defenders usually become the target of harassments, grave threats, vilification, red-tagging, and extrajudicial killings, so they themselves require protection.

Elisa Badayos, a coordinator of Karapatan in Negros Oriental, and Elioterio Moises, a member of the local peasant organization, Mantapi Ebwan Farmers Association, were gunned down while conducting a fact finding mission in Negros Oriental on November 28.

Fr. Marcelito “Tito” Paez was also killed on December 4 in San Leonardo, Nueva Ecija, after driving home a recently released political prisoner who used to be detained at the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) in Cabanatuan. He served as the coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) in Central Luzon. He was also a board member of Alay Bayan – Luson (ABI-Luson) and of the Community Based Health Program in Nueva Ecija (CBHP-NE).

Meanwhile, some 345 families from 9 Lumad communities in Lianga and San, Agustin in Surigao del Sur were forced to evacuate to safety after they spotted more than 80 soldiers roaming in their areas. The communities are being serviced by the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural Livelihood and Development (ALCADEV) and Tribal Filipino Program for Surigao del Sur (TRIFPSS). However, the military has imposed a food blockade, severely restricting the amount of food allowed to go to the evacuation area. Moreover, the teachers are experiencing various forms of harassment by soldiers and the schools are being tagged as supporters of the New People’s Army (NPA).

The website recently announced “complicit” as its Word of the Year. It means ‘helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way’. It serves as a reminder of the old adage that goes “the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”.

Thus, Filipinos must not be complicit in the midst of these human rights abuses being committed by the Duterte government by being indifferent. We must put a stop to the culture of impunity pervading our country. And we must all remember that each of us has a role to fulfill as human rights defenders.

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AscentPH is a national alliance of development organizations determinedly working for the empowerment of the people through poverty alleviation and promoting and defending the right to development and other fundamental human rights and freedoms.

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