134 human rights defenders have been killed in the Philippines during President Rodrigo Duterte’s three years in office, a trend that has increased at an alarming rate in recent months. Two of the most recent victims are Ryan Hubilla and Nelly Bagasala, members of the human rights organization Karapatan. They were killed in broad daylight on June 15 by unknown gunmen in Sorsogon province. Cristina “Tinay” Palabay, Karapatan’s secretary-general, called these killings evidence of the Duterte regime’s “promotion of the culture of violence and impunity among its uniformed men and vigilante-styled assailants…These murders indicate that the human rights crisis in the Philippines is only getting worse.” Karapatan also reports that its workers have experienced military and police surveillance.
Human rights groups are confronting this crisis from multiple angles — including a legislative solution that seeks to improve the security and basic protection of human rights defenders. For more than a decade, a range of grassroots, justice and women’s groups have worked with progressive lawmakers in the country to push for the Human Rights Defenders Bill (or House Bill 9199). This proposed law would recognize HRDs’ rights and clarify the state’s obligation to protect 17 HRD freedoms, including freedom from intimidation. It would also create a HRD Protection Committee, which could take action against violators of the law, and outlines steps for redress for activists including specifying gender-based attacks against WHRDs and LGBTQ activists. Two of the bill’s primary authors are representatives from GABRIELA Women’s Party (GWP), Arlene Brosas and Emmi de Jesus. HB 9199 recently passed in the House of Representatives, and will now move to the Senate where detained opposition lawmaker, Leila de Lima, authored the same initiative. The Senate will likely take up a vote in July.
A Culture of Impunity
Why is this important? In 2018, the Philippines was the most dangerous country in Asia for environmental and land defenders, according to Global Witness. Front Line Defenders’ 2018 global analysis revealed that these defenders are also among the highest risk groups across Asia, targeted by states, corporations, local vested interest groups, and paid thugs. The Philippines set a record-high of 60 HRDs killed in 2017 alone, and, according to Karapatan, at least 613 defenders have been killed since 2001. Along with Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, the Philippines is among the six countries that account for 80% of the deaths of rights defenders worldwide. Women human rights defenders here face elevated threats of sexual violence and gendered attacks, while President Duterte has threatened to “shoot [them] in the vagina.”
Since he assumed power in 2016, President Duterte has openly expressed his aversion towards human rights. “I don’t care about human rights, believe me,” he said in 2016. In 2017, he was more explicit: “Do not believe these human rights activists. I’ll kill you along with drug addicts; I’ll decapitate you.” In this context, justice groups have taken a two-pronged strategy: continue to lobby for the HRD bill, while also continuing to do their human rights work at great risk. HRDs are preparing for the worst, especially now that Duterte has consolidated his power with majority support in all three branches of government.
“The murders, harassment, and intimidation are part of an orchestrated move of this government to normalize their repressive policies and to inculcate into Filipinos’ minds that State violence and intimidation are the only way to solve the ills of society,” Palabay said. President Duterte has already used his executive powers to legitimize the crackdown on HRDs. In addition to the repressive martial law in Mindanao, there is the Oplan Sauron in Negros, an internal security operation plan against alleged leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines. In major cities, the SEMPO plan (Synchronized Enhanced Management of Police Operations) employs “shock and awe” tactics: synchronized besieging of targeted villages, premeditated killings and arrests, and continued issuing of warrants, even signed blank warrants for whomever the police and military wish to arrest or kill. These operational plans all fall under the national-level counterinsurgency program previously called Oplan Kapayapaan (Operational Plan Peace) and now Joint Campaign Plan Kapanatagan (Stability), which increasingly target human rights workers, on top of peasants and indigenous people.
Women at the forefront of HRD protection
Women human rights defenders across the Philippines are organizing communities, building collective protection, and mobilizing urgent action while also advocating for HRD protection legislation with allies inside Congress. Among many feminist and women-led organizations, GABRIELA and Karapatan illustrate the convergence of “inside and outside” strategies – alignment of lobbying and organizing. GABRIELA, one of the largest grassroots women’s organizations in the country, formed a women’s political party in 2001 to promote the rights and welfare of marginalized people. Today, GABRIELA Women’s Party files more pro-women and pro-people’s bills than any other political party. In a recent JASS Southeast Asia webinar on the changing context in the region, GABRIELA member Sharon Cabusao-Silva said, “We are trying to link with as many organizations are possible to help us in our fight against this dictatorship in our country,” which is why GABRIELA relies on the power of grassroots activism and public policy. Meanwhile, human rights organization Karapatan is focused on pushing all levels of governance – from city councils to the National Congress – to adopt protections for HRDs and pass resolutions in support of the HRD bill (the Iloilo City council recently did just that).
With the eyes of the world on the Philippines, the Duterte administration may find it harder to violate human rights at will. With international pressure and solidarity, and the passage of the HRD bill, there’s hope yet for improvements in the safety and protection of human rights defenders across the country. “With the human rights situation in the Philippines deteriorating, we now appeal to the international community to stand with us,” said Cabusao-Silva. “Along with solid grassroots organizing in the communities, global solidarity is critical at this time.”
Reversing these trends will require more than an HRD bill, but the passage of this bill would create formal accountability for President Duterte and others in government, which would make it harder for them to act with total disregard for human rights. “This bill, if passed into law, should provide stronger accountability measures for state actors who systematically and routinely violate people’s rights,” said Palabay.