State of indigenous peoples and farmers

25 July 2020

“Their ability to fight for their rights and their survival is at stake.”

The recently issued UN High Commissioner on the Human Rights (UNHCHR)
Report on the state of human rights in the Philippines highlights the
situation of indigenous peoples, peasants, and internally displaced
rural people under the Duterte administration.

The UNHCHR noted in its Report that Mindanao, the home region of
President Duterte, has the highest number of displaced individuals
numbering 359,941 as of 31 March 2020. The Marawi siege of 2017
contributed the largest share of protractedly displaced individuals at
127,865, probably an undercount. Although the establishment of the
Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in 2018 has
silenced the guns of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and
government forces, clashes with other radical groups like the
ISIL-affiliated non-State armed actors: the Abu Sayyaf Group, the
Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Maute group, continue to
fester. The lack of peace and order in Mindanao has engendered
violations of international humanitarian law thereby causing grave
concerns among rights bodies. As pointed out by the UNHCHR, the lack of
progress in transitional justice and reconciliation has also provided a
fertile ground for radicalization.

In fairness, the UNHCHR recognized the exemplary legal framework for the
rights of indigenous peoples in the Philippines. However, it takes
exception to its implementation which has been undermined by powerful
business and political actors, particularly on efforts at land
distribution and agrarian reform. These groups manipulate the
requirement for free and prior informed consent for any interventions in
indigenous communities – often through illegal means such as bribery and
intimidation, as noted in multiple independent studies.

In the Report, the UNHCHR cited a number of large-scale projects to
which the indigenous communities have not consented remain pending,
including, for example, the Kaliwa Dam project in Quezon. According to
UN experts, state authorities often expressed exasperation with the
process which they find cumbersome and threatened to push projects
through. Other companies circumvent the required appropriate consent
from the communities by continuing with their operations without
compliance. Unfortunately, the Lumad peoples of Mindanao have long been
caught in the middle of hostilities between the government forces and
NPA. Aggravating the situation are private mining and logging companies,
infrastructure projects and large-scale agribusiness on ancestral lands.

One particular problem is the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Units
(CAFGUs), established as an armed militia, and other armed groups as
force multipliers. Their activities have led to an increase in
extrajudicial killings and other violence against those perceived to be
anti-Government, pro-NPA or antibusiness. It should be noted that as
early as 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Committee called for tall
“private armies, vigilante groups and ‘force multipliers’” to be
disbanded and disarmed. Yet, they continue to proliferate and act with
apparent impunity.

According to the UNHCHR, documented killings of human rights defenders,
particularly in Mindanao, Negros, the Cordillera Administrative Region,
Palawan and Bataan province suggests widespread impunity for such
killings, Among others, the UN Report cited a killing I am familiar
with, that by the military of tribal leader, Datu Victor Danyan – one of
eight Lumad killed in Lake Sebu in South Cotabato in December 2017.

The martial law declaration in Mindanao and the issuance of Memorandum
No. 32 ordering the police and the military to suppress lawless violence
have also not been helpful and has escalated human rights violations
against people in the countryside.

Duterte’s harmful rhetoric has contributed to the deterioration of human
rights, according to the UNHCHR. These ranged from degrading and
sexually-charged comments against women human rights defenders,
politicians and combatants – including rape “jokes” – to statements
making light of torture, calling for bombing of indigenous peoples,
encouraging extreme violence against drug users and peddlers – even
offering bounties, calling for beheadings of civil society actors, and
warning that journalists were not immune from “assassination.” The
widespread killings, detentions, red-tagging and score-settling by State
actors suggest that Duterte’s public comments may have incited violence
and may have had the effect of encouraging, backing or even ordering
human rights violations with impunity. As clarified in the UN Report,
the use of such language could amount to a violation of the prohibition
against arbitrary deprivation of life in Article 6 of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The state of indigenous peoples, peasantry, and other rural communities
in the Philippines is not good. They have been displaced by
militarization and development aggression by private companies and the
government. Things will likely get worse with the effectivity of the
Anti-Terrorism Law as these peoples and communities are often the target
of the attacks of state and non-state actors. That is why
representatives from these peoples and communities will be filing a
challenge against this new law. Their ability to fight for their rights
and their survival is at stake.