A human rights activist branded a terrorist by the Philippine government has urged the international community to support an independent investigation into political killings in the country.
Amid growing unrest in the Philippines, Joan Carling said President Rodrigo Duterte has shown a complete disregard for the rule of law that, coupled with plans to plunder the land and resources of the indigenous people she campaigns to protect, has created a ticking time bomb.
The land rights defender was named on a legal petition filed in a Manila court on 21 February, alongside more than 600 individuals alleged to be affiliated with “terrorist organisations”.
The petition listed dozens of leftwing activists, labelling them members of the Communist party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army.
But the list also named more than 30 indigenous activists and leaders, including Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a Philippine national and UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, who branded the allegation of terrorism links “baseless, malicious and irresponsible”.
Both Carling and Tauli-Corpuz, who were out of the country when the petition was filed and now live in exile, are former leaders of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, which promotes and defends indigenous people’s rights in the Cordillera region.
Both have worked for more than 30 years to represent the rights of the indigenous population, whose land is under threat from mining and agribusiness in regions including Mindanao in the south and Luzon in the north.
Recently, the Philippines government has fast-tracked infrastructure projects without securing free, prior and informed consent from those affected, as required by a law introduced in 2007.
Local leaders involved in protesting and protecting their land from energy projects, foreign business, geothermal plants and the building of dams have been threatened and killed.
“We were singled out to give the impression we are enemies and to cripple the indigenous movement in the country,” said Carling.
“The implication of the terror tagging under the Human Security Act of 2007 means they can arrest and detain us or seize our properties or bank accounts.”
Now she is calling for an independent investigation by the UN human rights council into arbitrary arrests and political killings in the Philippines, for which she has been drumming up international support.
Earlier this month, Carling met with Dutch officials in The Hague. She has also visited Brussels to meet members of the European commission.
“The EU parliament has issued a resolution and we need the support of states so that resolution can be adopted by the human rights council,” she said.
The resolution invited member states to support a UN-led investigation into extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, and for those accountable to be brought to justice.
“There is an alarming trend of a worsening human rights situation in the country linked to the intention to further plunder our land and resources. On top of that, we are seeing this shrinking democratic space due to an increasingly authoritarian government,” said Carling.
A progressive environment minister, Gina Lopez, suspended the operations of 23 mines with a poor record on human rights and the environment. But she has been replaced by an ex-general, and those mining contracts could now resume.
Last month, Duterte appointed a former member of the military as presidential adviser on indigenous peoples. Carling described the trend to appoint more ex-military staff to public roles as “alarming”, particularly with Duterte strengthening his relationship with China, as signalled by the signing of a contract earlier this year to build irrigation dams in the Cordillera.
Previous plans for large dams in the region were successfully thwarted in a move that marked the start of the indigenous movement in the Cordillera.
Now foreign investment is causing renewed tensions with Malaysia and Singapore, also active in the region, marking the expansion of palm oil production and mining.
Carling said: “We have been protesting against these projects because we were never part of the decision-making and because of the adverse impacts of displacement and loss of livelihoods, as well as environmental disasters such as the disposal of toxic materials and destruction of sacred sites.”
One of her colleagues in the Cordillera was reportedly killed in March for protesting against the building of a dam.
Carling said: “We are concerned about our colleagues in Mindanao. People can be arrested and detained without formal charges. There are already killings happening and a growing culture of impunity.
“In a way, we are sitting on a timebomb. There are already signs of unrest. People are saying enough is enough. But if the government responds with violence things will explode, prompting more conflict and instability in the country.”
A group called the Movement Against Tyranny, made up of lawyers, academics, campaigners and others, is building momentum. But for the time being, Carling must do her campaigning from afar.
She said: “Given the political climate, it is likely that we will also become targets of political killings should we return.”
Carlos Conde, the Philippines researcher for Human Rights Watch said: “We are very, very concerned because defenders of the indigenous people’s rights have been targets lately, not just of threats but also attacks. Lawyers are working on having the petition nullified.”
However, protection for those on the list is uncertain as the country’s legal system has been in crisis since the Philippine supreme court ousted its own chief justice, a critic of Duterte, last month. The move sparked protests and was branded unconstitutional by the country’s leading lawyers.
“Our case is so unpredictable,” said Carling. “Even with the brightest lawyers in the world there is no guarantee of legal protection, because there is no more rule of law.”
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