The Assassination of Atty. Ben Ramos Jr. and the on-going threats to members of his organization PDG
Updated: Jan 16
The Philippines have been described as a semi-feudal society with a democratic constitution. Despite a democratic structure with regular elections, political and economic power remains in the hands of a limited number of elite families, who will go to any lengths to defend their privileges. Chronic poverty and food insecurity continue to affect a large percentage of the population. Since the current president, Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power in 2016, ended peace talks with the National Democratic Front/Communist Party of the Philippines (2017), who had demanded socioeconomic improvements in return for a continuing ceasefire, a vicious crackdown on all forms of opposition has been taking place. In the southern island of Mindanao martial law has been in place since 2017, while a de facto situation of martial law prevails in many other areas of the country, including the island of Negros.
What is the general human rights situation in the country? Are there any known issues affecting human rights defenders (HRD)?
HRDs and land and environmental rights activists in the Philippines have been the subject of extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, vilification, trumped up charges and harassment for decades. However, under the current president the situation has deteriorated dramatically. Organizations or individuals, including journalists, lawyers, unionists, rights activists, in short anyone who criticizes the government’s policies, in particular the ruthless “anti-drug campaign” that has led to the killing of thousands of drug users and pedlars, are systematically denounced as enemies of the state and accused of belonging to or supporting the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. This vilification of critical voices is often the first stage in a process that ends in the assassination of the victims. Since Duterte came to power in 2016 and August 2019, at least 200 HRDs, 14 journalists and 43 lawyers have been killed. The killers are rarely prosecuted.
The Philippines is considered to be the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders, with thirty murdered in 2018 alone; many more cases remain unrecorded.
Description of the case of human rights violation
Attorney Benjamin Ramos Jr. was a prominent human rights lawyer, a founder member of the National Union of People’s Lawyers in the Philippines and Secretary General of the NUPL chapter in Negros Occidental. He was also a founding member of the network MASIPAG in the Visayas region of the Philippines and founder and director of Paghida-et sa Kauswagan Development Group (PDG), a local organization supporting local peasant, landless farmers and fisherfolk and their organizations in their struggle for land rights and promoting the development of organic farming as a means to improve their agricultural production. PDG has been a partner of ASTM since 2013.
Description of the case of HR violation
Benjamin Ramos was shot and killed in Kabankalan City, Negros, Philippines on 6 November 2018. Prior to his murder, in April 2018 his name and photo had appeared on a poster publicly displayed by the Negros branch of the Philippines National Police (PNP) together with the photos of other HRDs and civil society leaders accused of having ties to the Communist Party of the Philippines and New People’s Army. This act essentially made him and the others an open target for assassination as described above.
What HR activities was he involved in?
Various areas of Ben Ramos’ work had made him unpopular with big landowners and private companies in Negros over many years. This includes his organizing and mobilizing work with the local peasant and fisherfolk communities, helping them to claim their rights, particularly land rights, campaigning against the exploitation of natural resources by large corporations as well as by providing free legal services to clients to who could not otherwise have afforded a lawyer, including landless peasants, sugarcane workers, environmentalists, activists, political prisoners, and victims of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Negros Occidental.
Just before his assassination, Ben Ramos had been supporting the families of nine farmers who had been massacred on a sugar cane plantation in the north of Negros. The farmers had been participating in “bungkalan”, the practice of planting crops on unused land in order to produce food for the families during the period between planting and harvesting when it is hard to earn any money. This is a tool often used in land rights campaigns in the Philippines.
Until now (December 2019) no one has been brought to justice for the murder of Ben Ramos. The Philippine National Police has ordered an investigation into his killing but has yet to release its findings.
What happened after the incident of HR violation? What actions were taken by the organisation affected?
Since the assassination of Ben Ramos, his widow, who took over as head of the organization after his death, and members of the PDG staff have been subjected to frequent intimidation, surveillance and received death threats in the form of text messages and anonymous phone calls, mostly from individuals and organizations linked to the military, that has a strong presence in Negros. PDG has been referred to as an enemy of the state.
PDG immediately adopted a number of practical security measures such as encrypted email communication, being discreet about their movements and have strengthened their CCTV installation, while at the same time continuing their work as best as possible. They refuse to give up their work and are organizing a campaign to demand justice for Ben. This campaign has been taken up by support groups in Europe.
PDG has also approached various organizations that provide assistance to HRDs in peril for financial support (Lifeline, FIDH, ProtectDefenders).
The partnership between PDG and ASTM
PDG has been a partner organisation of ASTM since 2013. The activities supported include strengthening the organisational capacities of local farmers’ organisations in the context of land reform, training of paralegals in the villages, capacity development for organising campaigns and increasing the capacity of the local organisations to improve their productivity through sustainable agriculture as well as the development of community-based health care systems.
In what sense have the HR violations that took place been an obstacle to the development work of the South partner?
The loss of Ben Ramos as the key figure at PDG obviously had a severe impact and the organization needed time to adjust. While PDG is continuing its activities as well as possible in this repressive situation, a few members of local communities they work with withdrew for fear of further attacks. Also some PDG staff had to take additional security measures and cannot always go to the communities.
The killing of Ben Ramos and the continuing harassment and threats to PDG have also led to financial difficulties for the organization, as Ben Ramos had channelled the money he earned in lawyers’ fees from his regular clients to support the running of PDG.
Organizing the campaign and following up funding applications to donors for emergency assistance has taken up time that would normally have been available for other activities.
Did the Luxembourg NGO take any actions in reaction to the case of HR violation and if so what did it do? What was the outcome?
ASTM informed the MAEE about the assassination of Ben Ramos. The MAEE published a statement condemning the killing and the climate of impunity in the Philippines, expressing concern about the repression of HRDs in the Philippines and calling on the Government of the Philippines to renew cooperation with the UNCHR Special Procedures.
ASTM has also joined NGOs and individuals in Belgium that are linked to PDG in a campaign to demand justice for Ben Ramos and for all HRDs in the Philippines. Protests were held outside the Embassy of the Philippines in Brussels immediately after the killing and to mark the first anniversary.
Author: ASTM. For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org