ALPSIDE DOWNED: Human (rights) targets

BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews / 27 March) –  In a human rights forum that I helped organize here in the Swiss capital early this month, I became acutely aware of the imminent threats now being faced by human rights workers in the Philippines.

Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher of the Human Rights Watch Asia division, was telling us about the abuse and threats that he had faced since he started reporting on the brutal anti-drugs war by the Duterte government.

The most vicious abuse came on Facebook, posted by netizens angered by HRW’s criticism of the killings of drug suspects during police operations or by alleged vigilantes or death squads. Caloy fought back against these hate mail, even if he understood that these pro-government attackers were encouraged because they were anonymous online, and more likely were fake accounts paid out from pro-government funds.

But then Caloy told us how he had changed his driving habits in the traffic-choked streets of Manila. He now drives closest to the middle-lane barriers on his left, reckoning that this will frustrate or make it difficult for any motorcycle-driving attempt on his person.

I – as well as the Swiss and Filipinos who attended the forum — were shocked that a human rights worker was forced to resort to this drastic but maybe life-saving measure in his daily life. For indeed, this government has made work much harder for human rights data gathering and collection.

It seems President Duterte’s pet peeve is human rights reporting, maybe second only to his publicly-professed hate for drugs and drug trafficking. Again and again, the president has demonized human rights defenders and in August 2017, even called on Philippine police to shoot human rights activists if they are “obstructing justice” in places of drug activity.

Last year, angered by the Commission on Human Rights’ scrutiny of police anti-drug killings, Duterte encouraged his partymates and allies in congress to cut the CHR budget. He also threatened to abolish the constitutionally- created body himself. In September 2017, Duterte even accused the CHR head of being a spokesman for the opposition.

And now two other top officials in government are attacking human rights groups. Coming from the latest session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this month, Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano claimed that some nongovernment organizations (NGOs) were being unwittingly used by drug lords to discredit the Duterte administration’s bloody war on drugs.

“Now it’s name-and-shame. It’s being used for politics, for business,” Cayetano said in a news conference last week.  “Unwittingly, some of the NGOs are being used by drug lords. That’s the reality.”

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque also took shots this week, saying that human rights groups have viciously attacked the war on drugs nonstop and therefore may be used by drug lords.

“We therefore do not discount the possibility that some human rights groups have become unwitting tools of drug lords to hinder the strides made by the Administration,” Roque said in a statement.

What these two officials have not offered, however, is proof that drug lords are indeed using human rights groups to discredit the government. The connections are unlikely. Many human rights groups were already formed and doing their work even before this government started in July 2016 .

Human rights advocates do make advocacy and human rights promotion trips abroad, but that has long been part of their work. They host funding dinners, but it is unlikely for a drug lord to be among the invited donors.

What government officials conveniently do not mention is this: would human rights defenders and institutions in the Philippines and all over the world have made this outcry, if thousands of mostly poor Filipinos had not died or were killed in the war on drugs?

But even with these considerations, there is no doubt that human rights work under this government has been made more difficult, and may even turn more dangerous.

Caloy related that it has become more difficult to get hard data about drug war killings, because police and the village officials have been told not to cooperate with human rights investigators. Barangay officials have been instructed to report any strangers coming to their villages, and to shut up if asked about the killings.

And to reduce the risks, he has contemplated the option to transfer his family if the government attacks on human rights defenders continue and the situation becomes worse.

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, has challenged both Cayetano and Roque to withdraw their comments immediately if they provide no evidence. “Are they trying to have death squads target human rights activists?” said Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams in a statement, adding that these “shockingly dangerous and shameful” statements could imperil the lives of human rights advocates. (Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their thoughts about their home country and their experiences in their adopted countries. Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao and also for the SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He  is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps)