State of Indigenous Peoples and Farmers

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.

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