Calls for legislation to protect human rights defenders as attacks against them persist

Over the last few months, President Rodrigo Duterte has continued to undermine the judiciary and the rule of law in the Philippines. In March 2018, Duterte issued a notice of withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, after ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced the start of a preliminary examination into crimes against humanity for the killing of thousands in the so-called ‘war on drugs’. Duterte also threatened to arrest the ICC prosecutor, should she conduct any activities in the country.

In May 2018, a minority bloc in the Philippine Senate asked the Supreme Court to invalidate President Duterte’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, saying that without the chamber’s consent, such an action could be deemed unconstitutional.

Serious concerns have also been raised by human rights groups over the removal of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno in May 2018 through a judicial ruling. The removal followed a series of public statements by President Duterte attacking the Chief Justice, including direct threats to see her removed from the Court. The International Commission of Jurist (ICJ) expressed "its grave concern that the proceedings in the case had contributed to an overall deterioration in the rule of law in the country" and that Sereno's dismissal "adds to the perception that the government institutions are unable or unwilling to safeguard the rule of law, and will attack the institutions that protect it".


Human rights defenders continue to be targeted

In the previous update in March 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor highlighted the targeting of human rights defenders in the Philippines, in particular, the labeling of local indigenous rights activists as 'terrorists'. Attacks against human rights defenders continue to be reported.

On 29th April 2018, Father Mark Anthony Ventura from Gattaran town, Cagayan province was gunned down. The rights group Karapatan linked the killing to his human rights and anti-mining activism. Ventura was shot after Sunday mass while he was still in his altar vestments and was chatting with choir members and parishioners. The gunman reportedly wore a helmet, entered the hall through the back entrance, and shot Ventura twice at close range. The priest died immediately. The gunman then fled with another man on a motorcycle toward the remote villages of Baggao town.

Ventura was the second Catholic priest to be killed in Luzon in five months. In December 2017, retired priest Marcelito Paez was shot dead by unknown assailants in Jaen town, Nueva Ecija province. Earlier that day, Paez had assisted in facilitating the release of a local organiser and political prisoner, Rommel Tucay, who was detained at the provincial jail in Cabanatuan city. His murder remains unsolved.

On 27th May, local leader Beverly Geronimo, a member of Tabing Guangan Farmers' Association and an anti-mining activist, was shot dead, when she, her daughter and two of their relatives were on their way back home in Agusan del Sur. According to Karapatan, two unknown men in civilian clothes fired at them. Geronimo sustained seven gunshot wounds, including one to the head which caused her death. Her daughter and relatives survived. She has previously experienced threats and harassment from soldiers encamped in their community due to her anti-mining activism against large-scale mining companies.

As documented previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, Senator De Lima, an outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, remains in prison facing drug-related charges which many believe are politically-motivated. On 29th May 2018, she received a human rights defender award from Amnesty International Philippines who considers her a prisoner of conscience.

In April 2018, the European Parliament issued a resolution on the Philippines wherein they called for the immediate release of Senator Leila de Lima and other human rights activists who remain in prison.

The resolution strongly condemned the killings of human rights defenders and civil society activists and urged the Philippine authorities to investigate all attacks and killings and bring perpetrators to justice. It also called on the government to end attacks on human rights defenders critical of the government, and ensure that human rights defenders, journalists and activists can carry out their work in an enabling environment and without fear of reprisals.

Human Rights Defenders Bill

In April 2018, detained Senator Leila de Lima renewed her call for Congress to fast track the passage of the bill aimed at protecting and defending the lives of human rights defenders in the country. In filing Senate Bill No 1699 in February, De Lima noted that since the start of the Duterte administration, the country has witnessed numerous incidents wherein the President had insulted or rejected human rights principles and standards.

If passed, the bill, also known as the 'Human Rights Defenders Act of 2018,' obligates the government to ensure defenders' protection against intimidation and unlawful intrusion by any public or private individual. The bill also mandates the government to conduct an investigation “whenever there is reasonable ground to believe that a human rights defender has been killed, disappeared, tortured, ill-treated, arbitrarily detained, threatened or subject to a violation of any of the rights”.

Senator de Lima said:

“I find it very urgent that we come forward and claim our right, as human rights defenders, to be recognized and protected…the obsessive attacks against these concepts and principles, led by no less than the President himself, have rendered us, human rights defenders, vulnerable and our work extremely difficult and dangerous”.

De Lima has repeatedly underscored the importance of establishing an effective legal remedy for such violations.

Australian nun facing deportation for her 'political activities'

Australian nun, Sister Patricia Fox, who has spent almost three decades in the country helping farmers and pushing for agrarian reform, is facing deportation. In April 2018, the Philippines Bureau of Immigration cancelled her visa and detained her for 24 hours for allegedly "engaging in political activity". She was given 30 days to leave the country.

Cited in the case against her was a photo where she was shown holding a placard calling for the release of political prisoners in the country, an act, Fox argued, that was part of her mission to help the poor. She said:

“As a Christian…I couldn’t help but to get involved both with projects such as training in organic farming, to uplift the livelihood of the farmers, but also to advocate with them for their rights to land, livelihood, peace, justice and security, all universal human rights which the church sees as integral”.

On 25th May, Sister Fox was given a temporary reprieve after she petitioned the Department of Justice to seek a reversal of the leave order against her, but she will still have to leave the country by 18th June 2018.


Assault on the press

According to Human Rights Watch, the press is under attack in the Philippines. New draft regulations issued by the Philippine House of Representatives in April 2018 would allow Congress to ban reporters who “besmirch” the reputation of lawmakers from covering the national legislature.

Duterte has made incendiary public statements against journalists, even justifying death threats against them. The main target has been the news website Rappler, which has been highly critical of the administration. Since February, the government has blacklisted Rappler reporters from covering the president’s residence and there is an ongoing Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into Rappler’s ownership structure that could result in the outlet’s closure.

In its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders reduced the Philippines’ press freedom global ranking from 127 to 133 out of 180 countries. In addition to government threats and media restrictions, four journalists were murdered in 2017, making the Philippines the deadliest country for journalists in Asia.

Peaceful assembly

Protest against ‘tyranny’ and misogyny

On 26th May 2018, human rights activists in the Philippines staged a procession to dramatise human rights abuses. Rights groups Karapatan and Hustisya organised the 'May Protest against Tyranny' by depicting human rights violations allegedly committed by President Rodrigo Duterte's administration.

Women in dresses symbolising truth, hope, justice, peace, and martyrdom paraded around the University of the Philippines campus in Quezon City. Among the issues raised during the event were Duterte's war on drugs, attacks on human rights defenders, the curtailment of press freedom, and the communist insurgency.

The event was also part of a campaign including various women's groups protesting the President's sexist and misogynistic behaviour. In a speech on 24th May, President Duterte said women "could not stand threats and intimidation". In response, Filipino women launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #BabaeAko (I am a woman) to address and combat such misogynistic statements.

New Public Assembly Act

A proposed new law regulating public assemblies was adopted by the Philippine House of Representatives in February 2018 and is currently before the Senate. House Bill 6834 will replace the Public Assembly Act of 1985.

In February 2018, the International Commission on Jurist (ICJ) raised concerns that the Act could allow for unlawful restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly. The law would prohibit persons aged 15 and under from organising a public assembly and participants or organisers could face potential criminal liability for holding a peaceful assembly without the approval of local executives.

The proposed law states that any person or group intending to organise a public assembly will only need to notify the city or municipal mayor at least three days prior to the holding of an assembly. However, there is a contradiction in that it prohibits the “holding of a public assembly at a time and place other than that approved by the city or municipal mayor”. The law also increases the penalty for holding a public assembly without the approval of local authorities.

Emerlynne Gil, ICJ’s Senior International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia, said:

“This legislation deceives us into thinking that there is no more need to obtain prior permission to holding a public assembly…but in effect, organizers will still need to secure the approval of the local executive before holding a public assembly”.

ICJ called on lawmakers in the Philippines not to adopt the proposed law in its current form.