lumad-child Drawing by Sid Cayon

“Lumads” the indigenous people in the Philippines live so close to their ancestral and natural environments. However, they are struggling immensely with current challenges as thousands of them are being forced to relocate and are displaced. Their ancestral lands are at constant risk due to development projects like mining and extraction of natural resources as well as agricultural investments, which leave thousands of indigenous people in total unsettlement. It is a too common scenario that while starting a mining project government authorities and companies do so without the knowledge and or consent of the indigenous people – thus putting aside such a requirement guaranteed by the Peoples Right Act of 1997.

After having visited several conflict areas of the Philippines in July 2015, the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Dr. Chaloka Beyani – reaffirming the above assertion – has revealed his concern over the plight of indigenous people in Mindanao where a large number of people remain displaced.

What is more staggering is the unending perpetrations and attacks having been committed against human rights defenders who have been active in the protection and promotion of the rights of Lumads in the area. The brutal killing of Emerito Samarca took place recently – on the 1st of September 2015. Emerito Samarca- executive director and a teacher of ALVADEV (Alternative Learning Centre for Agriculture and Livelihood) was found dead with harsh cuts in his school in Mindanao – to mention few among others. Such deliberate execution continued with the killings of two other Lumad residents and the evacuation of more than 300 families including children.

All the atrocities can be summarized from the verdict of International People’s Tribunal (IPT) which was convened in Washington, D.C. in July 16- 18, 2015 – in order to hear a case that was filed against the Philippines government for committing 262 documented cases of extra-judicial killings, 27 forced disappearances, 125 accounts of torture, 1016 illegal arrests, and 60,155 forced evacuation – all of which happened in the period between July 2010 and June 2015. According to the outcome of the IPT, President Benigno S. Aquino and the US government were found guilty of committing a whole range of human rights violations against the Philippine people during this time period. The decision of the IPT – although is non-binding, it shows the will of the victim’s and civil society to hold accountable the master minds and the perpetrators for such atrocities. People’s tribunals show a new kind of way of ownership and need for accountability, which should be revered and mirrored by the current judicial systems.

On 22 September 2015, United Nations Special Rapporteurs on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, and on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, called on the Philippines Government to launch a full and independent investigation into the killings of these three human rights defenders. However, no real action has been taken to date. Filipinos and human rights organizations worldwide are outraged by these assassinations. It has created a universal condemnation against the Philippines government in the highest terms for its inaction and worsening human rights violations in Philippines.

Much of the actions taken by the Filipino government and the AFP has to do with a failed and false vision of dealing with what they call ‘terrorism’. Backed with a pre-textual action called counter-insurgency campaign- “Oplan Bayanihan”, military operations are being conducted to ‘clear’ the area of insurgents and paramilitary groups, and then, to ‘improve’ the area by introducing livelihood and development projects. Sounds nice, however in practice, the governmental authorities use these military operations to silence human rights defenders including indigenous leaders who are critical of the government and clear the way for corrupt-foreign investment. This is not a new strategy rather a newly branded approach to oppress Human Rights Defenders, and it has been long used in the Philippines to be able to offer to foreign and transnational companies a friendly business environment. To be concrete, usually this setup starts with publicly categorizing government critical individuals and organizations as communists, terrorist, and or insurgents. This allows for the HRDs to be seen as legitimate military targets. A common pattern is to first harass and surveil the HRD shortly after trumped-up charges are filed against them. Mainly if they really feel threaten by the work the HRD is doing, then they resort to the old habit of killing and disappearing the human rights defender -to keep him/her out of the way.

Despite the expectation that the Oplan Bayanihan campaign is supposed to end in 2016, the Philippines has already seen massive human rights violations and we remain skeptical that the end of the campaign may not guarantee for the non-continuation of the above mentioned violations which target human rights defenders. Notwithstanding repeated requests by national and international organizations and individuals, no concrete action has been taken by the Philippines government to stop the ongoing violations. The culture of impunity continues while indigenous human rights defenders continue to lose their respective lives.

If these devastating perpetrations are to be condemned, if impunity is to be halted and if justice is to be ensured for the actual and potential victims, the following measures have to be taken with no need to take further time:

  • Independently investigate the recent killings Human Rights Defenders and forced displacement of Lumad residents and violations of variety of their rights.
  • Immediately annul the counter-insurgency campaign “Oplan Bayanihan” with no need to wait until the year 2016.
  • Stop harassing indigenous community and protect the rights and lives of the Human Rights Defenders in particular and indigenous people in general!
  • Implement existing Laws, especially the National Indigenous Peoples Rights Act and other relevant International and Regional Human Rights Instruments in practice.

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