Philippines: Two human rights defenders assassinated within one week

In the course of August 2020, civil society in the Philippines and their supporters throughout the world were shocked at the killing of two human rights defenders in just one week. One of the victims, Randall Echanis, was the deputy secretary general of ASTM’s partner organisation, KMP, the Peasant Movement of the Philippines. Aged 71, he had worked for agrarian reform and peasant rights for some 40 years and had participated as a consultant in the peace talks between the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and the Government of the Philippines, particularly with regard to questions of agrarian reform and rural development. He had also helped to set up the national human rights advocacy organisation Karapatan and had been imprisoned under three Filipino presidents because of his work. Echanis had been tortured before being killed together with a neighbour in his rented apartment in Quezon City, Metro Manila.

Randall Echanis was buried on 17 August. That same day, Zara Alvarez, aged 39 and a single mother with an 11-year old daughter, was brutally shot dead near her home in Bacolod City on Negros Island. Zara was a research and advocacy officer for the Negros Island Health Integrated Program and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Council for Health and Development, a former partner of ASTM, a community organiser and a paralegal worker for Karapatan-Negros. She had worked for the rights of landless peasants and agricultural workers in Negros for many years, which led to her being imprisoned for almost two years under former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo between 2012 and 2014. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Zara had been coordinating and conducting relief operations as part of a community health program, despite receiving repeated threats to her life and safety. She was the 13th member of Karapatan to be assassinated since President Duterte came to power in 2016.

An all too familiar pattern of threats and harassment

Both Randall Echanis and Zara Alvarez had received regular threats in relation to their human rights work for years prior to being killed. Their names had been included on a list of 649 activists, human rights defenders, government critics and others that was drawn up in 2018 by the Department of Justice requesting a Manila court to declare them “terrorists” under the Human Security Act of 2007. Their names were later removed from the list along with most of the others but the threats and harassment by alleged State forces continued.

Zara’s photo had also appeared on posters that circulated in Bacolod City, Negros, later in 2018, alongside those of other rights defenders, organizers and lawyers, including Atty. Benjamin Ramos, director of PDG, one of ASTM’s partner organisations. Those depicted were labeled as communist terrorists.

This strategy of “red-tagging” or labeling social activists and critics of the regime as communists is a particularly dangerous form of harassment since, under the current violently repressive regime, it essentially an invitation to state agents such as the police and military, to kill those listed with no fear of repercussions. Benjamin Ramos and three others who appeared on the posters in 2018 have since been assassinated: no one has so far been arrested or brought to justice for their murders.

Immediately after the killing of Zara Alvarez, one of her colleagues at Karapatan received a death threat on Facebook, warning her that she would be next. She had also appeared on the list of suspected terrorists and her photo was included in the same poster.

International pressure on Duterte is increasing

After these two most recent killings, messages of outrage and solidarity poured in, both from international civil society organisations and UN bodies. The numerous reactions show how the dramatic escalation in the numbers of extrajudicial killings of human rights and environmental defenders, along with the thousands of victims of Duterte’s ruthless “war on drugs”, is being closely monitored internationally. International human rights organisations such as Global Witness, Frontline Defenders and Amnesty International have reported regularly on the appalling human rights situation in the country. According to a recent report by Global Witness[1], for example, in 2019 the Philippines was the deadliest country in Asia for land and environmental rights defenders and second only to Colombia worldwide.

In a reaction to the killings, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, issued a statement stressing the need for “independent, thorough and transparent investigations into the killings, for those responsible to be held to account, for effective measures to be taken to protect other at-risk human rights defenders and to halt and condemn incitement to hatred against them.” The UN body also called on the Government of the Philippines to ensure that the relevant agencies cooperate fully with investigations by the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, which the Duterte administration has so far refused to do.

A damning report on the situation of human rights in the Philippines presented by Michelle Bachelet to the UN Human Rights Council on 30 June 2020[2], stated that her Office had verified the killings of at least 208 human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists between January 2015 and December 2019 and recommended that the Human Rights Council begin an investigation into the extrajudicial killings perpetrated in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign and other charges of human rights violations, including abuses against activists, lawyers, journalists, environmental defenders and indigenous peoples. Luxembourg was among the countries that spoke in support of the report at the meeting of the Human Rights Council.

In a follow up to the report, on 27 August 2020 a group of civil society organisations wrote to the member and observer States of the UN Human Rights Council urging them to adopt a resolution establishing an independent international investigative mechanism on extrajudicial executions and other human rights violations committed under the Duterte administration at its next session.

The report was also critical of the proposed new Anti-Terrorism Act that had been submitted to President Duterte for signing into law because of its very broad definition of terrorism and expansion of the period of detention without warrant. Bachelet pointed out that the Anti-Terrorism Act “heightens our concerns about the blurring of important distinctions between criticism, criminality and terrorism” and that it could have a “further chilling effect on human rights and humanitarian work, hindering support to vulnerable and marginalized communities”. Bachelet therefore called on the President not to sign the law but rather to review it and make modifications that would prevent it being misused against people engaged in peaceful criticism and advocacy. However, her appeal to Duterte fell on stony ground and just days later he signed the Anti-Terrorism Bill. Opposition to it continues however and 29 petitions have been filed with the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the Anti-Terrorism Act and requesting a temporary restraining order on its implementation.

While she was imprisoned, Zara Alvarez wrote a public letter, concluding with the following words: “Still, one voice is a noise, but more voices will become the voice of freedom, soon we will realize that everybody is singing the song of the people, taking a stand to end political persecution and demanding justice to all victims of human rights violations. Time will come that no amount of fear can stop us in cultivating everybody’s freedom.”

[1] Global Witness: Defending Tomorrow: The climate crisis and threats against land and environmental defenders, July 2020. (www.globalwitness.org) [2] Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in the Philippines, UN Doc. A/HRC/44/22, 4 June 2020

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