The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) joined the United Nations on Friday in denouncing what they called an apparent retaliation by the Philippine government against activists speaking out against President Rodrigo Duterte.
In addition, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said Duterte should undergo a psychiatric examination.
On Thursday, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and former leftist Rep. Satur Ocampo complained that their names were included in a list of 600 alleged communist insurgents the government petitioned to name as terrorists.
In a statement Friday, the U.N. said the list could be considered an unacceptable attack on legitimate rights workers and activists in the Philippines, where Duterte has presided over a crackdown against suspected drug addicts and pushers that has left at least 4,000 dead. Rights groups claim the figure is 12,000 when deaths blamed on pro-government vigilantes are added in.
“We are shocked that the special rapporteur is being targeted because of her work defending the rights of indigenous peoples,” said the statement issued by Michel Frost, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and Catalina Devandar Aguilar, chairwoman of the coordination committee of special procedures.
They noted that the accusation came three months after Corpuz expressed alarm over armed forces attacks and killings of indigenous tribes in southern Philippines. Duterte accused Corpuz of trying to embarrass him.
“We call on the Philippine authorities to immediately drop these unfounded accusations against Ms. Tauli-Corpuz to ensure her physical safety and that of others listed,” the UN experts said. Manila, as a signatory of the UN charter, should recognize its experts were immune from legal proceedings undertaken in the course of their work.
“The attack against the special rapporteur is taking place in the context of widespread extrajudicial executions and ongoing attacks against voices who are critical of the current government, including human rights defenders,” the statement said. “The president has himself publicly intimidated special rapporteurs.”
High Commissioner challenges Duterte
Meanwhile, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein told reporters in Geneva that Duterte needs to be checked by a doctor.
“It makes one believe that the president of the Philippines needs to submit himself to some sort of psychiatric evaluation,” Zeid said in response to reports that Duterte threated to slap another U.N. special rapporteur, Agnes Callamard. “This is absolutely disgraceful that the president of a country could speak in this way, using the foulest of language against a rapporteur that is highly respected.”
Sticking up for Duterte, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano challenged Zeid’s comments.
“There is no reason whatsoever for such an unmeasured outburst directed against President Rodrigo Duterte and it should not be repeated,” Cayetano said, adding Corpuz was included on the list because of her alleged ties to the Communist Party of the Philippines.
“The world actually needs more Dutertes – leaders with empathy; leaders who listen to their people; and leaders who are ready to sacrifice their lives to protect their people.”
HRW Philippine researcher Carlos Conde said the listing of hundreds of people puts those voicing criticisms against government at grave risk.
Conde said HRW saw the 55-page petition the government filed in a Manila court in February. He said the document listed Corpuz and Ocampo along with Communist Party of the Philippines founder Jose Maria Sison, who is in exile in the Netherlands, among the 600 to be declared terrorists.
“The justice department petition is a virtual government hit list,” Conde said. “There’s a long history in the Philippines of the state security forces and pro-government militias assassinating people labeled as NPA members or supporters.”
Duterte “should publicly reject this petition and ensure the safety of those listed in it – or risk being complicit in the resulting crimes,” Conde warned.
Peace talks stopped
Duterte ended peace talks with the communists in November, saying that the guerrillas had reneged on their commitment to peace when its members continued with attacks despite the peace talks. The military estimates that the guerrilla strength to be about 5,000 fighters.
The president had hoped to end the 49-year rebellion by the time he ends his six-year term in 2022, but in January he announced he would go after the legal fronts of the communist movement, including left-leaning political groups.
“Government accusations that international human rights experts have links to the NPA seek to undermine the valuable work they do to promote accountability for rights abuses,” Conde said.
In a statement from the Netherlands, Sison said Duterte’s move effectively kills any prospects of resuming peace negotiations. He also challenged Duterte for pushing the fake terrorist list.