On 1 March 2018, Franciscans International, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders—a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)—planned a joint Side-event to the 38th session of the Human Rights Council discussing the protection of human rights defenders in Asia. The panellists were Mr. Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders; Ms. Sejin Kim, the Senior Program Officer at FORUM-ASIA; Mr. Henri Tiphagne, the executive Director of People’s Watch India and Mr. Ellecer Carlos, the Spokesperson of iDEFEND and the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA). This side event investigated the panellists’ findings on the situation of human rights defenders in the region. The event had a particular focus on India and the Philippines.
Asia has become a dangerous place to fight for human rights. Human rights defenders in Asia face daily persecution that ranges from the censure of their right to freedom of expression to the violation of their right to life.
From January to December 2017 FORUM-ASIA has documented abuses of human rights defenders. The research has uncovered four major trends - continuous and prevalent judicial harassment in Asia, harassment of pro-democracy human rights defenders, harassment of women human rights defenders (WHRDs) as well as grassroots activists, and an increasing restriction of fundamental freedoms. The report found 251 cases of abuse of human rights defenders in Asia, with 24 of these cases involving the death of 35 individual defenders. Ms. Kim noted that this number is likely under-representative, but indicates that human rights defenders continue to lose their lives because of peaceful activities.
Mr. Henri Tiphagne spoke about his personal experience as a human rights defender in India, remarking that the freedom of civil society to work for their causes was much better twenty years ago than it is today. Civil society is experiencing an increasingly sophisticated suffocation of their activities. Mr. Tiphagne has personally had bank accounts frozen under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act – legislation that ultimately hinders civil society from receiving funds from abroad. He lamented the number of appeals sent to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India, the only recourse of citizens for human rights abuses, and stated that almost half (48%) of cases were not registered, dismissed, disposed of, or closed. In the cases that were registered, applicants can sometimes wait up to 19 months for a response.
Defenders face shrinking civil spaces and harassment while perpetrators enjoy impunity. In the majority of cases the perpetrator is the State (i.e. police, judiciary, armed forces and the government) but non-State actors are also responsible for committing abuses of human rights.
The Philippines is currently facing the worst human rights crisis since the Marcos dictatorship in the 1980’s. The current president, Rodrigo Duterte, has waged a ‘war on drugs’ which has resulted in an estimated 12,000 extrajudicial killings since his election as President in June 2016. In January 2018, the government officially relaunched operation “Oplan Tokhang”, the brutal anti-drug campaign. Duterte has encouraged vigilantism and vigilante groups have been organised into a pseudo-nationalist movement supported by State funding.
The challenges for human rights defenders in this context are, therefore, enormous. Duterte has said that defenders are ‘obstructing justice’, urging security forces to ‘shoot them’. Civil society has resorted to using the same methods to protect themselves that they used under Marcos’ dictatorship. Although, unlike Marcos, Duterte has popular support from the public, so defenders have to be wary of both State and non-State actors.
Mr. Carlos has stated that killings committed by both State and non-State actors have become ‘normal and systematic’. The most recent attack that PAHRA has documented was carried out on 19 February 2018 and resulted in the death of the environmental rights defender and lawyer Atty. Mia Manuelita Mascariñas-Green. Although legislation is currently being developed to protect human rights defenders, it is unlikely that this will shield the defenders in practice.
Franciscans International and FORUM-ASIA remain deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation in the Philippines and the abuse of human rights defenders throughout Asia.
Author: Madeleine Cowper