MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/10 December) – Government must fulfill its commitment to disband and disarm armed groups that are sowing fear in indigenous peoples’ communities and bring to justice those who are accused of violence and criminal activities, a UN official said on Tuesday.
Ola Almgren, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, was referring to the September statement of then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to prosecute those responsible for the spate of killings of Lumads in Mindanao.
“In the context of peace and security, the UN welcomes the September statement by the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the violence. We look forward to a swift and transparent process with findings that will be made public,” Almgren told participants to the Progressive Ideas and Perspectives Learning Series session on Tuesday in Malacanang.
He noted that the Lumads “have for decades been disproportionately affected by the conflict and, as stated by the CHR (Commission on Human Rights), have long been exploited for political use by all parties to the conflict”.
In Mindanao, Lumad communities have been torn apart by the armed conflict between government and the Maoist New People’s Army. Many Lumads themselves have either become NPA guerrillas or members of pro-government paramilitary groups.
The plight of Lumads affected by the conflict hogged the headlines after the killing of three Lumad leaders in Surigao del Sur last September by suspected paramilitary men. Hundreds of Lumads evacuated to the capital city of Tandag, obliging the Senate to conduct an inquiry a month after the incident.
“The UN agrees with the many calls for local armed groups, including IP armed groups, to urgently and systematically be disarmed and disbanded and stopped from engaging in violence and criminal activities. The State must ensure that law and order is consistently maintained in all communities,” Algren said.
He added: “The UN supports the premise made by the Department of Justice that under International Humanitarian Law, the protection of non-combatants ‘must never be compromised and violators must be held to account’.
“Non-combatants must be fully protected by the State and never be subjected to persecution, targeting, harassment or violence due to their political beliefs. We must remember that the targeting or occupation of schools as well as the harassment or attacks on teachers and students are considered grave violations under the UN Resolution 1612 which covers children in armed conflict and for which there is a Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) established in the Philippines.”
Almgren was referring to complaints that military units have forced the closure of some Lumad schools in Mindanao and converted these into camps.
The UN official emphasized though that both State and non-State forces have put at risk the safety of civilians in Lumad communities.
“Activities undertaken by security forces as well as armed groups within and around IP communities in Mindanao have resulted in legitimate expressions of fear and insecurity, in displacement, and is endangering the security and safety of non-combatants, including women, children and older persons,” he noted.
Almgren echoed the November call of Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, to preserve Lumad communities as zones of peace.
He urged for the resumption of peace talks between government and the National Democratic Front to ensure lasting peace in the country.
He cited too that the exploitation of natural resources is “another key element of the root causes of human rights violations faced by the Lumads”.
He said pressures exerted by mining and logging interests have threatened the culture and livelihood of the Lumads “given the inextricable ties between their life and their land”.
“Many who resist these advances have been subject to serious human rights violations, including threats, displacement and loss of life,” he added.
In October, an international fact-finding mission said the creation of paramilitary groups accused in the killing of Lumad leaders and ongoing military operations in Surigao del Sur are linked to the entry of mining interests in the province.
On Sept. 1, in Sitio Han-ayan, Brgy. Diatagon in Lianga town, members of the paramilitary group Magahat-Bagani allegedly killed Emerito Samarca, executive director of Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (Alcadev); Dionel Campos, chair of Malahutayong Pakigbisog Alang sa Sumusunod (Mapasu); and Kiwagan Datu and Mapasu member Datu Juvello Sinzo.
“Central to this issue (killing of Lumads and military operations) is the rich mineral resources in the Andap Valley Complex around which these communities and municipalities are clustered,” the probe mission report said.
The same report said at least five mining companies are set to start operations in Andap Valley Complex, an area that encompasses the towns of San Miguel, San Agustin, Marihatag, Cagwait, Tago, and Lianga.
Since the Martial Law years, Andap Valley Complex has been the site of several clashes between government forces and the NPA that have sparked the evacuations of civilians. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)