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MANILA, Philippines – An environmental law expert from the United Nations (UN) urged the Philippine government to disband the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), for “operating with impunity.”
“I have suggested that they disband the ELCAC because it is clear that the ELCAC is operating beyond its original mandate and is red-tagging people from the community and indigenous peoples,” Ian Fry, the first UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, said in a press conference on Wednesday, November 15.
Special rapporteurs are independent human rights experts working on a voluntary basis to make reports on specific country situations or thematic issues. They make policy recommendations to nations they have visited, but they cannot coerce governments to apply these changes.
“There are clearly people who have suffered dramatically as a consequence of the persecution of environmental human rights defenders,” said Fry. “And there needs to be a process to properly review the effects of the actions of the military.”
Fry said that it seemed that the Philippine government “has lost control of some of its military organizations and are moving beyond what is considered reasonable.”
The NTF-ELCAC is a task force organized by the government as part of its counter-insurgency efforts. Its campaign against suspected front organizations of the Left had led to the red-tagging of civil society groups and prominent personalities like journalist Atom Araullo and community pantry organizer Patreng Non.
The task force was recently embroiled in the widely reported abduction of young environmental activists Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro. The activists had divulged in a press conference organized by the NTF-ELCAC itself that they were abducted by the military.
For well over a decade, the Philippines has remained as the most dangerous country in Asia for environmental defenders. Around the world, the Philippines ranked 5th most dangerous country for environmental defenders, behind Latin American countries.
“The government needs to develop another approach to deal with terrorism issues. But it’s clear that this unit is operating with impunity and therefore needs to be abandoned,” said Fry.
Fry suggested more restorative ways of doing things: putting up a truth and reconciliation process “to deal with the harm that has been caused by the military to members of the community.”
Among his recommendations, the special rapporteur said the Philippine government must pursue investigations on extrajudicial killings and give amnesty to “people in jail as a consequence of these actions of ELCAC.”
National Security Adviser Eduardo Año took “strong exception” to Fry’s recommendation.
In a statement released hours after Fry’s press conference on Wednesday, Año said the environmental law expert should have consulted with them. He deemed Fry’s report “incomplete.”
For Año, it was a lost opportunity not engaging with the National Security Council.
“We could have informed him of the NTF-ELCAC’s flagship programs, advocacies, and thrusts to achieve genuine peace, unity and development, especially in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas that once served as hotbeds of communist terrorism.”
Año also assured Fry that the NTF-ELCAC is “a working and effective human rights mechanism.” He said they would have indulged Fry had he reached out to them.
If the special rapporteur does so in the future, Año said the NSC would take it as an indication from Fry to “preserve the integrity of his mandate to engage States on matters of human rights in an inclusive, impartial, and non-discriminatory manner.”
Fry arrived in the Philippines on November 6. To get a sense of the situation in the Philippines, he had met with like fisherfolk group Pamalakaya and transport group Piston, as well as indigenous peoples.
He had been in meetings with government officials from various government agencies including the Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Department of Justice, and Department of Social Welfare and Development. Among some of the places he went to during his 10-day mission were the Bataan Shipping Engineering Company compound, Valenzuela, Tacloban, and Iloilo.
Revoking the anti-terror law
Aside from disbanding the anti-communist task force, the government should also consider revoking the anti-terrorism law.
“I suggested that the government should revoke the Anti-Terrorism [Law],” said Fry.
Instead of villification, the Philippine government should shift gears in dealing with opposition, he said.
“The government needs to create a clean slate around its approach to anti-terrorism and revise the laws to make them appropriate for the circumstances that are occurring now and not to use the laws to harass, vilify, and kill environmental human rights defenders,” Fry added.
Then-president Rodrigo Duterte signed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 amid concerns that it was prone to abuse.
The press conference with reporters on Wednesday is one of Fry’s last activities before ending his mission in the Philippines. Fry will present a comprehensive report of his findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in June 2024. – Rappler.com