Philippines: Alarm over attacks on human rights defenders in a climate of pervasive impunity - Preliminary findings of a fact-finding mission on the conditions and vulnerabilities of HRDs

Urgent Appeal

Geneva-Paris, November 23, 2012. An international fact-finding mission of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), presents its preliminary conclusions following the investigation it carried out last week in the Philippines.

“There is compelling evidence that human rights defenders, in particular those advocating for land and environmental rights, are under serious threat, are constantly vilified, intimidated and ‘terrorised’”, noted the delegation at the conclusion of its mission. “A climate of pervasive and systematic impunity is at the heart of this alarming situation. Urgent protection measures and unequivocal steps to address the lack of accountability for attacks on human rights defenders are now required”, the delegation added.

The mission, which took place from November 11 to 17, 2012, investigated the situation of human rights defenders in the Philippines, with a focus on those advocating for land and environmental rights. Two members of OMCT General Assembly, Ms. Vrinda Grover, a prominent human rights lawyer (India), and Ms. Claudia Samayoa, Coordinator of the Unit for Protection of Human Rights Defenders of Guatemala, led the mission. They met human rights defenders, indigenous peoples, farmers groups, NGOs, lawyers, faith based organisations, as well as senior government officials at the national and municipal level, the Commission on Human Rights, foreign embassies and representatives of a transnational mining company in Manila as well as in Mindanao (Lanao del Norte and South Cotabato).

The mission found that human rights defenders face grave risks including extrajudicial killings, torture, harassment through implication in false criminal cases and threats. Lawyers and journalists involved in human rights work, too, have faced similar attacks.

Indigenous human rights defenders are particularly at risk in areas where conflict over land and natural resources has been aggravated by activities of national and transnational companies engaged in acquisition of land for mining and/or agro-industry. The ancestral rights of indigenous people over land and natural resources are being brazenly violated often through the use of private security guards, paramilitary and the military. Indigenous human rights defenders resisting peacefully the violations and asserting their lawful and ancestral claims face extrajudicial killings, vilification and threats. The recent extra-judicial killing of indigenous leader Juvy Capion and her two minor children on October 18, 2012, in Tampakan, by members of the 27th Infantry Battalion of the Philippines Armed Forces, exemplify the dangerous and violent conditions in the area sought for gold – copper mining by Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI) and transnational company Xstrata.

The mission found a general climate of human rights violations and impunity in the country in relation to land rights and land reforms that underlie threats to human rights defenders. Farmers and, even, Barangay (local government) officials implementing the government’s agrarian reform programme of land redistribution for landless farmers face serious threats to their life and liberty. Some have been shot at, others have been criminalized and many intimidated by threat of violence or abusive libel charges. For instance, Ms. Venecia "Inday" Natinga Nestor was shot on a public highway in Lanao del Norte, in broad daylight on June 19, 2012 after facing threats and harassment for being a strong advocate of the protection of the rights of small farmers and actively pushing for land redistribution. A consistent advocate of agrarian reform, she was very vocal against land grabbing and a pressure to government agencies involved in the processing of land claims.

Human rights defenders are targeted by State and non-State actors or by both acting in collusion and coordination with each other. The mission observed also the effects of the continuous militarization in the region in which the military has largely assumed functions of law enforcement. The emergence of multiple illegal and unaccountable private armies, legalized paramilitary groups such as the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU) and the Investment Defense Unit, as well as the large scale possession and availability of dangerous arms and weapons, are contributing to the climate of impunity for human rights violations including the attacks on human rights defenders.

The mission notes that the number of reported extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances has decreased since July 2010 and that President Aquino has publicly committed that his government would not allow human rights violations. However, due to the absence of accountability for past human rights violations, feeble and superficial response to ongoing violations, the inaction and apathy on the part of the police to rigorously investigate grave violations, the culture of violence and impunity continues. Partisan police investigation and protracted trials inspire little faith in the criminal justice system. At the same time human rights defenders are victimized through long spells of incarceration in false and trumped up charges. They are prosecuted for criminal offences and not recognised and treated as political prisoners. The Government must demonstrate its intent to respect and protect the rights of those that continue to struggle for human rights even in a climate of stigma and fear.

Even though the government has formulated new laws such as the Anti-Torture Act, constituted Units of Human Rights in the Armed Forces and the Philippines National Police, a focal point for Human Rights Defenders in the Commission of Human Rights of the Philippines, the challenge of widespread and systematic impunity remains. Plethora of laws and institutional mechanisms, purportedly for advancement of human rights, does not inspire confidence, as in their actual working and practices those in position of political, economic and military power continue to enjoy impunity.

In view of this situation, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders makes the following preliminary recommendations:

- The authorities of the Philippines should guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of all human rights defenders, and put an end to all acts of harassment against them.

- The actions of the Philippines Government and its institutions and agents must display respect for the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and comply with international human rights and humanitarian instruments ratified by the Philippines.

- Professional, independent, prompt and impartial investigation by the police into all allegations of human rights violations, including those involving multinational corporations, as well as fair and speedy trials, are necessary to ensure the observance of the rule of law, end impunity and protect human rights defenders. The burden of accountability and to provide evidence and witness testimonies in cases of human rights violations lies with the State, not with the victim.

- The role of command responsibility in Government and among forces in the security sector should also be diligently scrutinized in the perpetuation of impunity.

- Independent investigation and effective prosecutions of extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances can deter further attacks against human rights defenders.

- Government should recognise that human rights defenders have a legitimate role to play in ensuring peace, justice and democracy, and therefore should promote a dignification campaign of human rights defenders and create administrative measures to address instances where government officials indulge in vilification.

- Institutional mechanisms specially mandated to determine the ancestral ownership of land and resources of indigenous people needs urgent review, as there are serious allegations of corruption and collusion, compromising the rights of the indigenous people.

- The Commission of Human Rights of Philippines (CHRP) should create mechanisms for the recognition and protection of human rights defenders, especially those working in high risk areas. As proposed in the second Universal Periodic Review, measures should be adopted to enhance the capability both of the CHRP and of HRDs to promote and protect human rights through deputizing human rights defenders, including giving them the ‘privilege of visitation’.

- The Government should issue a standing invitation for all UN special mechanisms and procedures, specially the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders; Indigenous Peoples, and against Extrajudicial and Arbitrary Killings.

A mission report will be issued in the coming months and will present detailed conclusions and recommendations to the Government of The Philippines, non-State actors, the United Nations, the European Union and foreign embassies in The Philippines.

For further information, please contact:
· OMCT: Delphine Reculeau: + 41 22 809 49 39
· FIDH: Arthur Manet / Audrey Couprie: + 33 1 43 55 25 18

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