UN rapporteur calls for abolition of NTF-ELCAC  

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
UN rapporteur calls for abolition of NTF-ELCAC  
Irene Khan, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, gestures during a press conference in Manila on February 2, 2024.
Ted Aljibe / AFP

MANILA, Philippines — United Nations special rapporteur Irene Khan has called on the Philippine government to scrap its anti-insurgency task force — the second UN rapporteur to flag the body for overstepping its mandate by red-tagging civilians.

The UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion said that the government must disband the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) — a Duterte-era body that was created “six years ago in a different context” and is now “outdated.” 

Khan made the recommendation to the Philippine government following a 10-day visit that included meetings with government officials, human rights groups, political prisoners, media practitioners and press freedom advocates.

“The abolition will not only address some of the most critical drivers of red tagging, but it will also allow this administration to modernize peace-building approaches,” Khan said during a press conference on the results of her mission on Friday.

“Based on this changing political landscape, the abolition will allow for a more inclusive peacemaking platform or platforms with the participation of women, peacemakers and communities as a genuine whole-of-nation approach to peace,” the UN rapporteur added.

Khan said that the victims of red-tagging in the Philippines span a diverse range of groups, including human rights defenders, humanitarian workers, teachers, youth, priests, health workers, and indigenous leaders. 

Most victims have blamed the NTF-ELCAC either as the “culprit or the instigator” while others have also pointed their fingers at state security officials, the military and “some media outlets linked to political figures,” Khan added.

“I have asked the government openly whether they have a policy on red-tagging and I was reassured that it does not encourage or endorse it. But there is clear evidence: Red-tagging and terror-tagging are being practiced by security forces as part of their counter-terrorism strategy,” Khan added.

The UN rapporteur added that there is proof that the vilification is “not aimed at those who are actually associated with these proscribed organizations, as some of the officials have actually claimed.” 

“It is targeting legitimate activists, sowing distrust between the state, communities and civil society,” Khan added.

In November 2023, Ian Fry, the former UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, similarly made the call to abolish the NTF-ELCAC during his visit to the country.

Fry's assessment of the NTF-ELCAC — which he said has moved beyond its original mandate to red-tag civilians — drew flak from security and justice officials, who said his report was “incomplete.”

Since its creation in 2018, NTF-ELCAC officials have consistently spouted dubious narratives against human rights advocates, opposition lawmakers, journalists, teachers, lawyers and members of marginalized groups. 

The body has also been accused of derailing the passage of long-sought-after legislation that will protect human rights defenders, using arguments that equate activism with terrorism.

Policy vs red-tagging pushed

On Friday, Khan stressed that while the government has denied having a policy on red-tagging, this entails that authorities come up with an actual policy that will prevent its use against innocent civilians.

Khan explained: “The government doesn't have a policy of corruption, but the government has a policy on anti-corruption on fighting corruption. (So) I have called on the government to adopt a policy on fighting red-tagging.”

“I have recommended an executive order denouncing this practice and setting out very clear measures that can be taken to discourage disincentivize and discipline those who violate the policy,” the UN rapporteur added.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has strongly criticized the practice of red-tagging, saying it goes against the constitutional principle of being innocent until proven guilty and can seriously affect the safety and freedom of those accused.

Khan said she has also called on the CHR to craft an official definition for what constitutes red-tagging. 

The UN rapporteur said that her overall findings will be submitted as an official report to the UN next year and that, in the meantime, she will be keeping in touch with government officials to check how her recommendations can be adopted.

“The government welcomed the report and the government has said that they will be having discussions with me. They will make comments on it,” she added.

Human rights group Karapatan said on Friday that they welcome Khan’s recommendation to disband the NTF-ELCAC and said her findings were in step with the “consistent with the sordid realities that journalists, freedom of expression advocates, activists and ordinary folks experience under the Marcos Jr. administration.”

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