Philippines under review: Rodrigo Duterte must no longer turn a blind eye to the fate of human rights defenders

The human rights record of the Philippines came under scrutiny on 8 May 2017 during the 27th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland. After the initial review of the national report submitted by the Philippines, member states of the UNHRC made their recommendations. In this article Front Line Defenders looks at the critical situation for human rights defenders, (HRDs), in the Philippines.

During the previous UPR of the Philippines in 2012, only four countries1 had raised concern with regard to the situation of human rights defenders (HRDs) in the Philippines, resulting in five official recommendations. While the Philippines merely acknowledged the recommendation pertaining to cooperation with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, it accepted two concerning the protection of HRDs from extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. During the examination, the government committed itself to taking “firm measures to address the problem of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances”. Despite those assurances, extra-judicial killings and targeted attacks on HRDs have continued to take place. The government report under current review made no mention of the risks facing HRDs or the measures taken to prevent their targeting, thus demonstrating how little progress has been made in implementing such recommendations over the past five years, and particularly under the new administration.

In contrast, in its 2017 review, eleven states called for the establishment of protection mechanisms for HRDs and recommended that the Philippines “should provide a safe and enabling environment for the work of human rights defenders”2. The dire need for the recognition of their positive and legitimate work in defence of human rights was also raised by some member states, highlighting how much the issue of the dangers faced by human rights defenders in the Philippines has gained momentum in recent years.

Prior to the 2017 review, Front Line Defenders submitted stakeholders’ report with recommendations to the government of the Philippines pertaining to the protection of HRDs which called on the government to take effective action to:

  • end and investigate extra-judicial killings;

  • cease judicial harassment;

  • review restrictive laws;

  • recognise the positive and legitimate role human rights defenders play in society.

As of today, extra-judicial killing remains the gravest threat facing human rights defenders. Since the last review, the Philippines has seen a marked deterioration in the rule of law, which has deeply affected the ability of HRDs to carry out their peaceful human rights work. The climate of impunity prevailing in the Philippines, combined with the administration’s encouragement of extra-judicial killings of alleged drug users, as well as President Duterte’s hostile rhetoric about HRDs and civil society members, has resulted in a serious deterioration in the situation for HRDs in the country. There are very real fears that under Duterte’s administration such killings will increase as official encouragement for the killing of those suspected of involvement in the illegal drug trade will have the knock-on effect of creating a situation in which the killing of HRDs is seen as an acceptable state response. The Philippines has already become the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a HRD, outside of the Americas, in terms of number of reported killings.

In a recent letter to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Philippine human rights organisation Karapatan noted that 474 HRDs were killed during the Arroyo presidency (2001-2010), and 139 during the Aquino presidency (2010-2016) while 33 HRDs have already been killed since President Duterte came to power in July 2016. This makes a total of 646 HRDs killed in a 16 year period.

In the first two months of 2017 alone, 15 HRDs working on land and indigenous rights were the victims of extra-judicial killings, none of which have been properly investigated by the authorities to this day. Defenders of economic, social and cultural rights, including land and environmental defenders and defenders from indigenous communities, face significant risks in their attempts to peacefully defend their land or oppose major industrial projects. Most of the HRDs targeted in the recent spate of killings were working on environmental, land or indigenous peoples’ rights.

Despite the high number of states which expressed concern about extra-judicial killings in the so-called ‘war on drugs’ during this week’s UPR, no commitments were made by the Philippines delegation to stop the killings, or to conduct independent investigations to hold perpetrators accountable, let alone to end the extra-judicial killings of HRDs.

Now that the lethal environment facing HRDs in the Philippines has come under international scrutiny, the Duterte administration must put an end to these killings, many of which take place with official sanction and the active participation of members of the security forces. Recommendations made by the UNHRC member states as well as the civil society organisations need to be properly addressed as a matter of urgency. The first step is to immediately cease extra-judicial killings and other gross and systematic violations of human rights committed against HRDs. The Philippines must recognise the important role played by HRDs in creating a more just and equal society. Meanwhile, the international community and human rights organisations must maintain their pressure on the Duterte administration and hold it accountable for its human rights record.

The Philippines is expected to announce whether or not it accepts the recommendations made this week in September 2017, before the 36th regular session of the UNHRC.

1France, Ireland, Norway, United Kingdom

2Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, United Kingdom.

Mexico: Mother who fought for justice for her daughter gunned down on International Mothers’ Day

“They will kill me in the end. Of that I have no doubt” – and they did.

On the evening of 10 May, a group of armed men forced their way into the home of Miriam Rodríguez Martínez in Tamaulipas, in the north east of the country, and shot her 10 times. She was taken immediately to hospital, but was declared dead on arrival.

In 2012, Miriam’s daughter Karen Alejandra was disappeared. When the official investigation proved fruitless, Miriam undertook her own investigation and, for 2 years, she worked unceasingly to discover the whereabouts of her daughter, and to bring her killers to justice.

In 2014,  her work led to the discovery of a mass grave which also contained the body of her daughter. Further evidence supplied by her to the police led to a series of arrests and the prosecution of the alleged perpetrators, members of the Zeta gang. Miriam did not just focus on the search for her own daughter. She was one of the founding members of Colectivo de Desaparecidos en San Fernando, which campaigned for justice for the families of all the disappeared. She also helped to create a national network for the families of the disappeared.

When three of the gang members, charged with murdering her daughter, were among a group of criminals who escaped from the prison in Tamaulipas in March, Miriam feared for her life. In this interview she talks about how, despite the fact that she had requested protection from the authorities, it was never provided.

According to her husband, the threats started at the end of March. On one occasion gang members kidnapped her husband, but Miriam followed in her car, while calling the police, and managed to intercept the gang and rescue her husband.  Because of the repeated threats she had received over the years, Miriam had given up her market business and was working in a health centre. Just weeks before her death she confided in a friend that she felt that the gang would kill her in the end.

Miriam’s death is just the latest killing of a parent who has been  searching for the truth about the disappearance of a family member. Since 2010, at least 11 parents have been killed because they refused to give up the struggle to find out what had happened to their children.

  • Marisela Escobedo Ortiz
  • Nepomuceno Moreno Núñez
  • Sandra Luz Hernández
  • Luis Abraham Cabada Hernández
  • Bernardo Carreto
  • Cornelia San Juan Guevara Guerrero
  • José Jesús Jiménez Gaona
  • Heriberto López Gastélum
  • Emma Gabriela Molina Canto
  • Gerardo Corona Piceno
  • Míriam Rodríguez Martínez

According to local media reports there have been several recent instances of HRDs being followed, having their photographs taken by unknown people and of unmarked vans driving round their homes at night. With 5,682 people reported to have been disappeared in the last seven years, mostly at the hands of drug cartels, the State of Tamaulipas has the highest rate of disappearances in Mexico.


Mexico: 125 HRDs killed in the 5 years since President Enrique Peña Nieto came to power


Bet-biraí Nieto Morales is a journalist with Alcaldes de Mexico

While attacks on journalists and priests in Mexico attract the most publicity and public outrage, the fact remains that community leaders and human rights defenders (HRDs) account for the highest number of killings – 125 in the last 5 years.

According to this latest report, in the 53 months since President Enrique Peña Nieto came to power, 266 community leaders and activists have been killed in Mexico, of whom 125 are human rights defenders. 83 were municipal leaders, killed while in office, and 38 were journalists. Since December 2012, on average two human rights defenders have been killed every month in Mexico.

During his recent visit to Mexico, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, highlighted the particular dangers faced by indigenous rights defenders and those campaigning to protect the environment from the impact of mega development projects.

“The situation of human rights defenders in Mexico is conditioned by the criminalisation of their activities through the deliberate misuse of criminal law and the manipulation of the state’s punitive power by both state and non-state actors, to hinder and even prevent the legitimate activities of defenders to promote and protect human rights,” said Forst.

“The failure to investigate and sanction aggressors has signaled a dangerous message that there are no consequences for committing such crimes. This creates an environment conducive to the repetition of violations,” he warned.

Two major contributory factors are the impunity enjoyed by organised criminal gangs and the failure by state authorities to provide protection to HRDs or to bring the perpetrators of attacks to justice.


Colombia: 11 community leaders killed in Cauca alone so far this year

Diego Fernando Rodriguez latest HRD killed in Cauca

Sources Telesur and El Tiempo

According to recent media reports, in the early hours of Thursday 27 November, lawyer and human rights defender (HRD) Diego Fernando Rodriguez was found dead in his home in the south western department of Cauca. He had been stabbed multiple times.  Fernando Rodriguez was the legal representative of the local community council in Gana Plata, in the municipality of Mercaderes.

The killing comes amid a wave of violence against progressive social leaders in Colombia, particularly in Cauca and other regions of the country where demobilisation of the FARC rebel army has created a power vacuum in some rural areas. According to social organisations, at least 11 community leaders have been murdered in Cauca alone, so far this year.

In a statement condemning this latest killing,  Deivin Hurtado, spokesperson for the regional human rights network, Red de Derechos Humanos del Sur Occidente Colombiano ‘Francisco Isaías Cifuentes, said,  “It is lamentable that every time we meet to discuss how we can improve the security situation of HRDs and community leaders, we are presented with a higher number of such killings”. He demanded action by the government to ensure the protection of HRDs so that they can continue their peaceful human rights work.

Human rights groups have urged the Colombian government to prioritise tackling paramilitary violence that often targets progressive social leaders including campesinos, indigenous activists and other human rights defenders.

Brazil: Regional coordinator of landless workers organisation, MST, shot dead in Minas Gerais

The office of the United Nations in Brazil has issued a statement condemning the latest killing of a member of Movimento dos Trabalhadores Ruais Sem Terra (MST), which represents landless workers in rural areas of Brazil. The statement also called on the authorities to take action to enable human rights defenders (HRDs) to continue their peaceful human rights work.

On the evening of Sunday 23 April, 51 year old Silvino Nunes Gouveia was at home in Assentamento Liberdade, Vale do Rio Doce, in Minas Gerais, when he was called to the door of his house. When he went out, he was shot multiple times and died instantly. According to local media reports family members have stated that  Silvino  had received numerous threats because of his work defending the land rights of the community.

Silvino was the regional coordinator of MST in an area, where there are more than 1,200 families living in 5 camps. Members of the local community blocked traffic, in and out of the area, in a peaceful protest at the killing.

The United Nations statement underscored the importance of the work carried out by HRDs in promoting the development and realisation of human rights in the country. “It is necessary that state institutions guarantee all the conditions for carrying out this work safely, in any community and, in any part of the country. The United Nations system in Brazil reiterates its willingness to follow up on this issue. “

Colombia: Six indigenous leaders killed in four days

In a new report, human rights organisation Amnesty International denounced the increase in killings of indigenous people in Colombia.

Amnesty International states that between April 16 and 20, a spate of attacks by suspected right-wing paramilitaries on indigenous communities led to the deaths of six individuals belonging to either the Kite Kiwe, Awá, Wounaan or Nasa people(s).

On April 19, Gerson Acosta Salazar (35), an Indigenous leader of the Kite Kiwe people in Timbío, Cauca, was killed while leaving a community meeting. According to Amnesty International, other indigenous leaders shot and killed included Pedro Nel Pai Pascal (35), Jhonny Marcelo Cuajiboy Pascal (33), and Ever Goyes (35) of the Awá community and brothers Anselmo and Dalmiro Cardenas of the Wounan Indigenous people.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, director of Amnesty International for the Americas, emphasised that the situation indigenous communities face in Colombia is “alarming”. The spate of assassinations “raises serious doubts” concerning the Colombian government’s ability to follow through with peace plans concerning leftist militants, reports Tele SUR.

”These crimes highlight one of the main challenges in the implementation of the peace process. The protection of the communities living in the areas which have been most affected by the armed conflict and the need to guarantee that these deplorable acts (killings) do not go unpunished is vital” says Guevara-Rosas.

The Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Colombia for 2016 highlighted an increase in killings in areas once occupied by paramilitary, group or individual criminal interests, most notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.

Mexico: Journalist and LGBTI rights defender dies amid suspicions of torture


According to the Union of Journalists of Tlaxcala (UPET), on the morning of Sunday, 16 April, the body of 36-year-old LGBTI rights defender and former television reporter, Juan José Roldán, was found dead on a dirt road in the municipality of San Rafael.

The body of Juan was discovered by emergency services who attended the scene following a 911 phone call and showed signs of torture.

The death of Juan comes at a time of heightened danger for journalists working on sensitive issues in Mexico.

According to some media reports, Juan received abusive messages and harassment via Facebook threatening his life.

Police took Juan’s body to the Forensic Medical Service (Semefo) for further tests where an autopsy will determine the exact cause(s) of his death.

Relatives of the journalist identified the body, while the State Attorney General’s Office (PGJE) has begun an investigation to establish the reasons for the young man’s death.

Guatemala: Indigenous peoples’ and land rights defender shot dead in Izabal province

According to media reports, on the morning of Tuesday, 11 April, 46 year old community leader Mateo Tzip Xo, died in hospital from injuries received when he was brutally attacked by several armed men. Mateo was shot in the head, when he and a friend, Hermelindo Chol, were returning home from a fishing trip. Hermelindo was also wounded, but is recovering from his injuries in hospital.

Mateo had campaigned for many years to protect the historic land rights of his people and community in Reserva de Biósfera Sierra de las Minas. Mateo was treasurer of the Comité Comunitario de Desarrollo (Community Development Committee) and it is believed that the attack may have been prompted by his work defending the land rights of the community.

Mateo was also a Guía Principal ( Senior Guide ) in the indigenous community of Maya Q’eqchi’ Nueva Jerusalén, where the killing took place.

The Defensoría Q’eqchi (an NGO set up to defend the rights of the Maya Q’eqchi people) is demanding an investigation into the killing and is calling on the Human Rights Ombudsman to take effective action to protect all the Guías Principales of the Maya Q’eqchi’ people.

Mexico: Second HRD beaten to death in Oaxaca in one month


Taxi driver José Alberto Toledo Villalobos was a human rights defender and campaigner for indigenous peoples’ and land rights in the area of San Pedro Tapanatepec, Oaxaca. He was a leading campaigner against large scale mining projects, which are being proposed for development in the eastern part of the Istmo region. He was also involved in the campaign against the imposition of excessive charges for electricity.

At 08.00 pm on Saturday, 8 April, he was found badly beaten and semi-conscious on the road between San José and the petrol station at Tapanatepec. He had extensive bruises and other injuries and his taxi, which was found nearby, was a complete wreck.

According to witness reports, his taxi was followed by several other vehicles, which pursued him until they finally drove him off the road. The killers then beat José Alberto, leaving him in a critical condition. He was initially taken to a local clinic, before being taken to another hospital because of the critical nature of his injuries, where he later died.

José Alberto had taken part in recent dialogues between local communities and the state authorities to reach agreement on how to de-escalate the conflict over the electricity charges. Despite an agreement with the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) that there would be no reprisals against the activists, the company continued to harass them with threats and intimidation, while electricity was cut off to the communities throughout the month of March.

José Alberto had reportedly received numerous death threats, telling him to give up his campaign for lower electricity charges or face the consequences. Just a month earlier on 8 March, indigenous community leader Benjamín Juárez José, died in hospital following a brutal beating while in police custody. Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned at  the ongoing attacks on human rights defenders in Oaxaca (and Mexico more generally) and the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators.

India – Maharashtra: 16th RTI activist killed since 2010


On the evening of Sunday, 8 April, Suhas Haldankar, a RTI (Right to Information) activist, who had exposed several instances of political corruption in the Kharalwadi area of Maharashtra, was brutally murdered.

Eleven people have been arrested, including a former Congress corporator (elected local municipal official).

Haldankar was going home on his motorbike when he was stopped by two of the accused at a cross roads in the Kharalwadi area. They ridiculed Haldankar for a board he had put up recently, highlighting the lack of basic civic amenities in Kharalwadi. A group of 10-12 people then started throwing concrete blocks at Haldankar, who collapsed and died before he could be taken to hospital.

According to media reports, Suhas was highlighting the poor state of the civic administration in his area and had exposed several irregularities in the functioning of the Pimpri-Chinchwad municipal corporation (PCMC). At least one of the accused is said to be a former member of the PCMC and allegedly belongs to the Indian National Congress.

16 RTI activists have been killed in Maharashtra State since 2010, three of them since the present state government came to power in 2014. Condemning the incident, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has sent a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission calling on them to monitor the police investigation as “Suhas was a human rights defender fighting for public causes.” CHRI has also urged the Maharashtra State Information Commission to call for all pending RTI applications filed by Suhas to be made public. The central government has been trying to insist that all RTI applications for information should normally abate on the death of the appellant, which in this case would give a victory to the killers.

Currently, there is no law across India to protect whistleblowers who are victimised for exposing corruption. Parliament approved the Whistleblower Protection Act in 2011 but, instead of implementing it, the central government has pushed regressive amendments that will discourage potential whistleblowers from coming forward.