The brutal personal costs of the Philippines’ human rights abuses
Petra Molnar, Lawyer, International Human Rights Program, University of
Toronto & Anna Su, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto
2 August 2018
Petra Molnar consults with Migrante Ontario and affiliated groups and
has received funding from CUPE for this fieldwork.
Anna Su does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding
from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article,
and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic
In September 2017, Sheerah Escudero’s world came crashing down. Her
beloved younger brother Ephraim had been missing for five days and the
Escudero family was growing increasingly desperate. Then the call came:
His body had been found lying by an empty road more than 100 kilometres
away in Angeles City, in Pampanga province in the Philippines, northwest
of Manila. Ephraim had been shot in the head, his body wrapped in
The 18-year-old had been a recreational drug user but as far as his
family knew, hadn’t used in a few years. Yet the father of two had still
become ensnared in the increasingly brutal drug war of President Rodrigo
Duterte, whose government has been killing suspected drug users and
“drug pushers” since 2016. Duterte recently announced he was ramping up
Sheerah and her family tried to identify those responsible for Ephraim’s
death. They reported his disappearance immediately to police. Local
police departments have refused to release any information or leads.
Witnesses have told Sheerah that Ephraim was picked up by two men on a
motorcycle, a common killing tactic now known as “riding in tandem.”
CCTV footage confirmed this.
Sheerah, a diminutive woman in her early 20s with a bright smile, bears
the trauma of her brother’s death with stoicism. Her Facebook page is a
mix of joyful pictures with friends at coffee shops, juxtaposed with
photos of her brother’s bloodied body lying in the street.
His death made the impact of the drug war personal in the most visceral
sense — a brother lost, a father taken too soon.
Human rights workers targeted
We met Sheerah in late April 2018, during a trip to the Philippines to
investigate the deteriorating human rights situation in the country —
part of a broader research project at the International Human Rights
Program, University of Toronto Faculty of Law, to understand Canada’s
role in the region.
Our conversations with more than 50 human rights defenders,
environmental activists, lawyers, artists and Indigenous groups revealed
troubling patterns in a country that’s increasingly closing its borders
Sheerah’s story is all too common. The Duterte government’s brutal
crackdown on drugs continues unabated. Duterte has publicly galvanized
the Philippine National Police force to “slaughter them all,”
proclaiming that we “can expect 20,000 to 30,000 more” deaths before the
war is over.
As with any state directly targeting its own people, actual numbers are
difficult to quantify, but Human Rights Watch estimates there are more
than 12,000 dead. The body count rises daily; victims include children
and young people like Sheerah’s brother Ephraim. Their deaths destroy
families and the social fabric of communities.
‘Currently Detained vs Released.’ A file cabinet at Karapatan, a human
rights organization in Manila, containing information on the fate of
human rights workers in the country. (Author provided)
Sheerah’s story shows the profound and far-reaching reverberations of
state-induced violence. This violence takes many forms. For example, the
regime has been explicitly targeting human rights advocates, placing
many lawyers, NGO workers and environmental activists on a “suspected
terrorist” hit list, which the government filed at a Manila Court in
The lawyers and organizations we spoke with in metropolitan Manila all
mentioned numerous colleagues who have been placed on this list, with
some detained by the regime, while others have ominously disappeared.
Mining and degradation of the environment
The hit list has also created a climate of fear among environmental
activists who have been advocating for agrarian reform, basic human
rights for farmers, as well as highlighting environmental degradation as
a result of extractive mining activities across the country.
During our time in rural Santa Cruz in the province of Zambales, we
interviewed numerous environmental activists and farmers who spoke about
the inaction of the government to address the tremendous environmental
impacts of a neighbouring nickel mine.
The mine has destroyed rice paddies, polluted rivers and ocean water,
killed livestock, and made it extremely difficult for farmers and
fisherfolk to sustain their livelihoods.
The community’s incredible hospitality during our stay was contrasted by
the stark poverty as a result of ongoing mining in the region. Many
farmers and activists also expressed fatigue at having to deal with more
researchers who ultimately do nothing to help their situation.
As one farmer told us: “I don’t want to talk to another Westerner ever
again — nothing is changing. Your mines come in, our government sells
away our lives, and we are left with nothing.”
While Canada is not operating a mine directly in Zambales, the
deteriorating security situation at the time of our fieldwork did not
allow us to visit Canadian mining sites as we had initally planned in
the southern island of Mindadao, or the Oceana Gold mining facility in
Didipio in central Luzon, which has already faced strong criticism by
environmental groups in Canada.
Canadian mines also devastate the environment
However, the environmental impacts we observed in Santa Cruz are
apparently similar to those at the Oceana Gold mine, according to
representatives of the Didipio community as well as environmental
activists in Manila who regularly monitor Canadian mines.
In Mindanao, thousands have been displaced by the mining activity and
the counter-insurgency war, including numerous Indigenous peoples, who
are often also directly targeted and murdered by the Duterte government
for speaking out.
According to an Indigenous Lumad chieftain, Datu Lala: “Mindanao is now
so militarized that we cannot breathe. We have to get out — otherwise we
will be killed.”
The chieftain and his community have been seeking sanctuary in Manila
for the last few months after a number of their family members,
including children, were killed. Communities such as the Lumad are
increasingly afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal, and environmental
activists do not want to become the next target.
The Duterte government has also undermined fundamental democratic
institutions and the independent judiciary, removing Maria Lourdes
Sereno, the chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, and publicly
attacking the Commission on Human Rights, an independent and
constitutionally mandated body that monitors and investigates human
rights in the Philippines.
Duterte has even threatened to slash its annual Human Rights Commission
budget to a mere $20 and has called its chairman, Chito Gascon, a
“pedophile” on national television.
Duterte doesn’t stop with his own people.
His administration has also been sealing its borders to international
observers, and he’s barred foreigners like the Italian politician
Giacomo Filibeck and a delegation from entering the country in April.
Even religious missionaries are not immune. During our time in the
Philippines, Duterte ordered the expulsion of 76-year-old Australian nun
Sister Patricia Fox, who has been living in the country for 20 years,
for so-called “human rights activism.”
And the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the right of Indigenous
peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, has been placed on the suspected
terrorist list and is now afraid to return to the Philippines.
Our fieldwork was marred by this increasingly hostile environment. We
were repeatedly told to keep a low profile, and our sources warned us
that the government does not like foreign criticism.
Canada must do better
As two Canadian lawyers specializing in human rights law, we were
profoundly disturbed by the discrepancy between this reality on the
ground and Canada’s silence on the Philippines.
The International Criminal Court has initiated a preliminary
investigation against Duterte himself, and the president retaliated by
calling for a complete withdrawal from the court and threatening to
arrest its chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, if she ever dared to set
foot in the Philippines.
However, during our visit to the Canadian Embassy in Manila, a
spokesperson emphasized Canada’s insistence on maintaining “friendly
relations” with the Philippines.
It’s possible that Canada benefits from these friendly relations. We
import labour from the Philippines through its many temporary foreign
worker schemes. Perhaps calling out human rights abuses in the
Philippines would not bode well for maintaining a steady stream of
labour that bolsters the Canadian economy.
At the absolute minimum, however, Canada must critically re-examine its
foreign aid policy and trade relations with the Philippines, such as the
recently cancelled $300 million helicopter deal, which would have sent
16 combat-ready helicopters to the Philippine military were it not for
backlash by the Canadian public and the media.
However, in April 2018, there were renewed discussions about the sale of
the same helicopters, as well as an additional helicopter going directly
to the Philippine National Police in June this year — the very same
police force perpetrating the drug war murders.
It’s hard to reconcile Canada’s rhetoric of upholding international
human rights with the suffering of people like Sheerah, who lost her
only brother to the drug war.
Sheerah is particularly disturbed that “Duterte has made it OK to tell
people that it is normal to kill, that people should die for using drugs
instead of having access to treatment and rehabilitation.”
To deal with her trauma, Sheerah has become an activist and writer,
volunteering with Rise Up, a network of organizations advocating against
the drug-related killings.
Ephraim’s death continues to reverberate through her life in unexpected
ways, acting as an “ice-cold” wakeup call, but one that also makes her
life more dangerous. Keeping her brother’s memory alive makes her a
target, she says, with a mix of quiet resignation and courage: “If this
bloodshed continues, we are all potential victims here.”