Unrelenting human rights violations heightened under martial law

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, in January 2017 President Duterte declared a halt to the war on drugs, following the brutal execution of an innocent South Korean businessman. However, the campaign against drug dealers and criminals has continued, and further threatened the operating environment for human rights defenders, as explained in the 'Association' section below. 

On 23rd May 2017, Duterte declared martial law in the southern island of Mindanao after security forces clashed with armed separatist insurgents. The presence of Muslim extremists aligned to Daesh (also known as the Islamic State or ISIS), such as Abu Sayyaf, has led to a series of clashes between insurgents and security forces, leaving at least 500 people dead. As tension in the volatile region escalates, on  17th July 2017 Duterte asked congress to extend martial law until the end of 2017 in an effort to quell the unrest. However, many fear that the prolonged use of martial law and military rule will embolden Filipino authorities in violating human rights. In a recent statement, Karapatan, a civil society organisation that documents and exposes credible allegations of torture by the government and security forces, voiced strong opposition to the martial law, saying that: 

"State militarist solutions to terrorism or rebellion, at the expense of people’s rights, are not solutions at all, as these only magnify the problems at hand. What is direly needed are comprehensive economic and political reforms that address the root causes of social problems".


Duterte's violent war on drugs has had a shocking impact on the operating environment for human rights defenders (HRDs). Front Line Defenders recently listed more than 15 cases of extrajudicial killings against land rights activists, farmers and members of indigenous communities since early 2017. In the midst of Duterte's chaotic and bloodthirsty war on drugs, none of these killings have been properly investigated and perpetrators brought to justice. The dramatic rise in attacks on HRDs has prompted activists to file a complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Duterte on charges of mass murder and crimes against humanity. 

In addition, on 7th June 2017, 30 UN member states called on the authorities in the Philippines to abide by international commitments and protect civil society, declaring that: 

"We share the concerns of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights regarding harassment, intimidation, threats and killings of human rights defenders in the Philippines and are dismayed at public statements which threaten or appear to support the murder of journalists, human rights defenders or other members of civil society. We urge the Philippines to take immediate steps to create and maintain in law and in practice a safe and enabling environment for civil society and human rights defenders".


On 24th February 2017, a former justice secretary and prominent critic of Duterte, Senator Leila de Lima, was arrested. Accused of complicity in the illegal drug trade during her tenure as justice secretary from 2010 to 2015, de Lima is being held at Camp Crame, the headquarters of the Philippine National Police in Quezon City, Metro Manila. The arrest and ongoing detention of vocal political opponents has become emblematic of the closing space for dissent in the Philippines under President Duterte. Widely cited as the first political prisoner of Duterte's regime, de Lima's ongoing detention under spurious allegations is further evidence that the "war on drugs" can be used as a thin veneer to legitimise human rights abuses. Despite her incarceration, de Lima has fearlessly continued her vocal opposition of the government from behind bars using social media. 

To crack down on the use of social media to express dissent, authorities in the Philippines are considering new laws that could potentially curtail freedom of expression on the internet. On 22nd June 2017, a bill on "fake news" was drafted that would provide the authorities with wide ranging powers to persecute media outlets and individuals who publish "false" information. While the authorities claim these measures are essential to improve the accuracy of media reporting, freedom of speech advocates have cited concerns that the draft law could be used to stifle dissent. With hefty fines or up to five years in jail for individuals and entities believed to have purposefully published false information, many fear the law could be used as a catchall to whitewash critical opinions from the mainstream media. In a statement, Filipino civil society organisation - the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility - commented on the draft law, stating: 

"Once passed into law, [the draft law] will in short result in censorship rather than the elimination or even minimization of fake news. The likelihood is that government itself will be the principal source and disseminator of false and misleading information in furtherance of the creeping authoritarianism Filipinos should be more concerned about".

Peaceful Assembly

On 23rd June 2017, the LGBTI festival with the longest history in Asia, Metro Manila Pride March, was held in Marikina city. The festival had a theme of #HereTogether this year, which calls on the allies of the LGBTI community to show their support for equality. More than 7,700 people celebrated at the march, illustrating a significant increase in participants from the 4,000 attendees last year. There were no reports violence during the festival. 

The pride celebrations come at a time when many hope that laws protecting the LGBTI community will improve. There is hope that the widely-anticipated “Anti-SOGI (Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity) Discrimination Act” will usher in a new era of legal provisions to prevent discrimination against members of the LGBTI community.