Human Rights in the Philippines – a report and reflection by Sandy Yule

I first learned of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines in 1973, during the Marcos era. I was working for the ASCM at the time and had occasion to visit the Philippines SCM. The pattern has become drearily familiar since then, with the New People’s Army (NPA), reportedly a Communist insurgency, used to encourage all right-thinking people into acceptance of counter-terrorist violence by the established forces, including extra-judicial killings of civil society critics.

In 2009, I was privileged to join a World Council of Churches delegation to the National Council of Churches in the Philippines. Once again, we met with those affected by extrajudicial killings of civil society activists, frequently tagged without real warrant as NPA members and/or supporters. We heard from family members who gave testimony to the killings.

Since the election of President Duterte in 2016, a so-called ‘war on drugs’ has been launched, which has legitimised the targeted killing of many thousands of people in any way associated with drugs. More recently, there has been a fresh spate of deaths (around 300) of civil society activists, including lawyers, union leaders, farmers, workers, human rights activists and church leaders. The President’s rhetoric has made extra-judicial killing an acknowledged government policy, unlike in earlier times. A general picture is provided in the Ecumenical ‘Unity Statement for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights in the Philippines’. This statement has been endorsed by eighteen national and international church bodies, including the National Council of Churches in Australia, the Christian Conference of Asia, the Uniting Church in Australia and the WSCF. 

The passing of the new Anti-Terrorism law just recently has further escalated the attack on civil society critics of the Duterte government and its murderous policies. This law echoes the new law in China that targets protesters in Hong Kong by defining terrorism so vaguely that anyone who can be pictured as a critic of the state can be tagged a terrorist. Critics are finding that their photographs are appearing on broadsheets which identify them as communists associated with the NPA. They rightly feel anxious for their lives, as vigilante groups are emboldened to target them, quite apart from the para-military assassins who do seem to have close links with the Philippine military. It is ominous to hear that former army generals are being appointed to administrative positions with responsibility for enforcing the new law. 

I do not know what to make of the NPA. It has had a remarkably long existence in the Philippines, at least if you listen to government announcements. There are claims of the occasional actions against the Philippine military, which may have happened. Still, if the NPA did not exist, it would clearly be very tempting for the Philippine government to invent it. The fact that it was there in 1973, with much the same profile as now, suggests a few things. One is that the Philippine military has had no success in eradicating it. Another is that the social forces leading to its creation would seem to be still in place, so that recruiting is happening. It is all too tempting to conclude that the NPA is kept in life by the need of the Philippine military for a justification for its ongoing targeted killings of those who stand up for the poorer section Philippine society. 

I have recently been involved in three Zoom meetings which have focused on this situation. One was a briefing by those lobbying governments with a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, including Australia, to accept the findings of the report from Michelle Bachelet of Chile, which details recent abuses in the Philippines and to bring international condemnation of these abuses to bear. We heard from a representative of the World Council of Churches in a later session that the present draft response to be brought before the UN Human Rights Council is ‘unfortunately weak’. The second was a meeting of those concerned in Australia, which presented the current situation and continued a conversation about our responses. The third was the fully international and ecumenical meeting which launched the Unity Statement previously mentioned. There were an impressive array of speakers, many from the Philippines and many from the world church, with a general sense that this was the world church seeking a common and powerful voice against atrocities.

We are faced here with what must count as politically motivated murder with impunity. I cannot remember any serious effort to bring to justice those responsible for the hundreds of killings of civil society leaders over the years. State sponsored violence typically operates with this impunity, as we see in countries such as Russia. There is a whiff of this same corruption of justice in the USA, coming to light through the Black Lives Matter movement. Then again, we are by no means free of this in our own country. Has the occasional investigation of black deaths in custody produced recognisable justice for the victims? Still, a leading edge of this culture of impunity is to be found in the state-sanctioned killings on particularly flagrant display in the Philippines, where it is manifest and unarguable. I believe that the ASCM needs to stand with those who declare the wrongness of extra-judicial killing, especially when it is sanctioned, however surreptitiously, by the state.