Philippine Rights Group Under Attack

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Zara Alvarez
© Christina Palabay/Facebook

A longstanding human rights organization in the Philippines disclosed on Monday that two of its officers, along with several activists working for other groups, had received death threats. In a series of tweets, Karapatan, a left-wing political group, identified the people targeted and said they were “under extreme risk.”

The threats came a week after unidentified gunmen shot dead Zara Alvarez, a legal worker for the group, in Bacolod City in the central Philippines on August 17. Alvarez’s killing, as well as the apparent torture and murder of peasant leader Randall Echanis the week before, prompted the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to denounce the spate of attacks against human rights defenders in the Philippines.

Alvarez is the thirteenth Karapatan member killed during the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, the group said. Many others have been killed during previous administrations, which shows the risks of human rights work in the Philippines.

But Karapatan has been a particular target of Philippine security forces and their agents because of its alleged links to the half-century-old communist insurgency.

The Duterte administration emphasized those alleged links during the June session of the UN Human Rights Council, in which the Department of Justice released a report linking Karapatan and several other activist groups to the Philippines communist movement. In this context, it’s unsurprising that most of the activists killed in the Philippines over the years have belonged to the same political networks as Karapatan. The military and police, along with other government agencies, have for years been “red-tagging” Karapatan. And the reality is that people who are “red-tagged” are at heightened risk, including of being targeted for killing. This includes Karapatan’s secretary-general, who herself has been subjected to “red-tagging.”

Successive Philippine governments have blurred the distinction between leftist political activists and communist fighters. The security forces all too frequently find it easier to use unlawful deadly force against the former, those people and groups operating openly and legally to raise concerns about government abuses. The Duterte government should stop threatening activists, whatever their political views, and end all “red-tagging.” No one should face deadly retaliation for exercising their basic rights and peacefully criticizing government policies and actions.