UN expert calls on Philippines to abolish anti-communist task force

Jojo Riñoza and Jeoffrey Maitem
UN expert calls on Philippines to abolish anti-communist task force United Nations human rights expert Ian Fry calls on the Philippine government to disband the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict during a news conference at the U.N. House in Mandaluyong City, Metro Manila, Nov. 15, 2023.
Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews

UPDATED at 7:04 p.m. ET on 2023-11-15

A visiting United Nations expert on human rights called on the Philippines on Wednesday to stop “totally unacceptable” attacks on activists, as he urged the government to disband an anti-communist task force accused of torturing and killing people.

During his 10-day tour of the nation, Ian Fry, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, said he heard accounts about alleged abuses committed against environmental defenders and other by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). 

“I met with a number of civil society organizations and indigenous people’s organizations who told me horrific stories of how they’ve been treated,” Fry said during a press conference in Manila as he wrapped up his visit to the Southeast Asian country.  

“It is clear it is operating beyond its original mandate and is red-tagging people from the community and the [indigenous peoples’ groups]. It appears as though private financial interests are driving ELCAC to do this,” he said without naming those funding sources.

Fry said he “heard stories of torture, disappearance and extra-judicial killing of people.”

“This is totally unacceptable. It seems the government has lost control of this military organization and is moving beyond what is considered reasonable,” he said.

Red-tagging refers to baselessly accusing someone of being a communist sympathizer. During his time in office (2016-22) then-President Rodrigo Duterte often branded his critics without offering any proof. 

“It is very evident that the [task force] is using it powers to protect key economic interests the country. This has nothing to do with anti-terrorism or anti-communism. The military's gross overreaction to people trying to defend their right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is totally unacceptable. The NTF-ELCAC should be disbanded.”

National Security Adviser Eduardo Año said the government rejected Fry’s call, adding that the U.N. official was allowed to travel freely in teh Philippines and meet with groups on “matters related to his mandate.”

“In the interest of fairness and justice, he should have raised his concerns with us to ensure that he has full appreciation of the body’s mandate, operations and over-all directions. Sadly, even if he had issues that are relevant to his report, he did not find time to do so,” Año said in a statement. 

“We wish to assure him that the agency is a working and effective human rights mechanism founded on the principles of good and inclusive governance and we could have helped him define it in his study,” he said. 

Strategy to end communist insurgency

Duterte created the task force in 2018 ostensibly to implement the government’s strategy to end the communist insurgency, which began in 1969. It was supposed to implement economic programs and offer amnesty to guerrillas even as military operations continued.  

His successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., maintained the inter-agency organization. Fry said he heard testimonies that atrocities were still happening. 

Along with his call to abolish NTF-ELCAC, Fry also questioned the Anti-Terrorism Act. Signed into law by Duterte in 2020, it gives authorities sweeping powers to arrest suspected terrorists without warrants and detain them for about a month. 

15 PH-UN2.jpg
Protesters outside the Armed Forces of the Philippines national headquarters at Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City, call for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Insurgency and Armed Conflict to be abolished, Aug. 5, 2023. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

Critics have said the law is meant to stifle dissent after Duterte faced widespread accusations of rights abuses in connection with his war on illegal drugs that resulted in more than 8,000 deaths, according to government figures. 

Fry told reporters that Manila should establish a process “to deal with the harm that has been caused by the military in the community. 

“People should have the right to freedom of expression without the fear of being killed or intimidated by the military. I call on the Philippines government to respect this right and establish a truth and reconciliation process to investigate the unlawful killings by the military, hold those accountable for these killings and provide reparations for those who have suffered,” he said. 

Moreover, Fry said, the Philippines ranks second only to Brazil as the worst place in the world as far as the treatment of environmental rights defenders is concerned.  

“That’s a serious problem and I think that’s going to seriously affect the international reputation of the Philippines if that continues and if they don’t initiate a process to resolve that rapidly,” he said.  

The NTF-ELCAC has caused a public furor over its accusations that certain lawmakers, journalists and even some celebrities were actively supporting the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military wing, the New People’s Army. 

In February 2021, an NTF spokesman accused a journalist, Tetch Torres-Tupas, a reporter for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, of being a communist propagandist after she reported about indigenous tribesmen petitioning against the Anti-Terrorism Act. The NTF later apologized for the statement.

This report was updated to add one more comment from Ian Fry.


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