Labeling dissent as rebellion 'institutionalized, normalized' in Philippines — UN report

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Labeling dissent as rebellion 'institutionalized, normalized' in Philippines � UN report
Protesters flash streamers, shout slogan while onboard their vehicles calling to junk the anti-terrorism bill during their picket at Congress last June 3, 2020
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — The vilification of dissent and attacks against perceived critics of the Philippine government are being “increasingly institutionalized and normalized in ways that will be very difficult to reverse,” the United Nations Human Rights Office said Thursday.

In a report that looked into the human rights situation in the Philippines, the UN agency said human rights advocacy and activism are routinely equated with insurgency. It stressed that 'red-tagging' — or labelling individuals and groups as communists or terrorists—has been a “persistent and powerful threat to civil society and freedom of expression.”

“The focus is diverted to discrediting the messengers rather than examining the substance of the message. This has muddied the space for debate, disagreement and for challenging state institutions and policies,” the report read.

In October 2019, human rights monitor Karapatan told Philstar.com that more individuals and organizations have been subjects of red-tagging since President Rodrigo Duterte signed Executive Order 70, which created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict.

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The group said red-tagging by government forces is usually followed by threats through electronic or physical means, surveillance and harassment, arbitrary or illegal arrest and detention, or torture. In some cases, red-tagging also translates to enforced disappearances and even-killings.

“People who disagree with government policies and criticize them including in international fora, should not be vilified as terrorist sympathizers,” UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said. She is expected to report her office’s findings to the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva later this month.

The controversial anti-terrorism bill is now up for Duterte's signature after the House of Represenatives passed Wednesday the proposed measure, which is feared to infringe on people's freedom of association and expression. 

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The UN Human Rights Office also stressed that the joint operations of police and military in Negros Island and other areas where additional uniformed personnel were deployed “may have resulted in serious human rights violations.”

It said the effect of the militarization—coupled with the longstanding presence of armed groups and the pressure by landed elites and large business project is dire on indigenous and farming communities.

“Indigenous peoples should not be victims of tug-of-war between the State, non-State armed groups and business interests,” Bachelet said.

The report added the Philippine government has increasingly filed criminal charges against social media users posting criticisms on the government’s policies and actions using COVID-19 special powers law.

The UN report as mandated by the UN Human Rights Council last year also looked into the human rights violations in the context of the government’s anti-drugs campaign.

“Despite credible allegations of widespread and systematic extrajudicial killings in the context of the campaign against illegal drugs, there has been near impunity for such violations,” the report said. 

In a statement, the Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines said the report is a “damning indictment of its non-compliance with principles, standards, instruments and convention on human rights.”

READ: Senate report recommends PNP, AFP to probe its men over Negros killings

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