Leahy Statement On Defending Indigenous Activists In The Phillipines

Mr. President, I want to speak about a subject that other Senators should be aware of.

Many Members of Congress have visited the Philippines, a country with which we share a long history of strategic, economic, cultural, and other interests.  We also know that for many years the Philippine government has been fighting an extremist insurgency in Mindanao.  The United States has been supporting the Philippine government in that effort.

According to information I have received, on February 21, 2018, the Philippines State Prosecutor filed a legal petition to declare over 600 persons as “terrorists,” alleging that they are members of the Communist party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New Peoples Army (NPA), two groups designated by the United States as foreign terrorist organizations. The list was published after the collapse of the peace negotiations between CPP-NPA and the Philippine government last year.

By itself, that might not be objectionable.  There are terrorists in the Philippines.  The problem with this “terrorist list” is that the government is apparently using it to persecute people who have nothing to do with terrorism, but who have engaged in legitimate, peaceful dissent and protests in opposition to government policies that threaten their way of life.

The list includes a number of indigenous rights defenders who as far as I am aware are not at all affiliated with the CPP-NPA.  These individuals are known and respected nationally and internationally for their consistent, lawful efforts to protect human rights for the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in the Philippines.  By criminalizing their work, and including these activists on an official “terrorist list,” the administration of President Duterte is endangering the lives of these and other human rights defenders and community leaders.  It is a misuse of the justice system to deny their rights to free expression, association, and assembly – rights we take for granted and that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The affected individuals are now subject to warrantless arrests, surveillance, and freezing of assets.  Their lives and the lives of their families are in danger.  Human Rights Watch has described the petition as “a virtual government hit list,” noting the “long history in the Philippines of state security forces and pro-government militias assassinating those labeled as NPA members or supporters.”  In March 2018 alone, there were reportedly at least three cases of extrajudicial killings of indigenous leaders, all known for their work to organize communities for the protection of indigenous lands.

Two of the more high-profile targeted activists, Joan Carling and Victoria Tauli Corpuz, were fortunate to have been out of the country when the list was published.  Carling is an indigenous activist from the Cordillera region in the Philippines.  She has been working on indigenous issues at the grassroots and international levels for more than 20 years.  Ms. Carling has been elected twice as the Secretary General of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), representing AIPP’s 47 member-organizations in 14 countries.  She was appointed by the UN Economic and Social Council as an indigenous expert-member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues for 2014-16.

Victoria Tauli Corpuz was appointed as the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples by the UN Human Rights Council in 2014. She is an indigenous leader from the Kankana-ey Igorot people of the Cordillera Region in the Philippines.  As an indigenous activist, she has worked for over three decades to protect indigenous rights and as an advocate for women’s rights.

As a consequence of the Duterte administration’s action, these women suddenly have no home to return to.  They cannot risk going back to the Philippines.  Still, they are fortunate compared to those targeted leaders who remain in the country.  The “terrorist list” also includes members of indigenous communities in Mindanao who were displaced from their lands in President Duterte’s anti-terrorism sweep and now live precariously in evacuation camps.

Much of this reportedly has to do with powerful business interests in collusion with corrupt officials in the government.  In the recent past, the Philippine government has fast-tracked priority infrastructure development projects.  Some of these projects are reportedly planned to be built on ancestral indigenous lands despite opposition from indigenous communities and the failure to secure indigenous peoples’ free, prior and informed consent as required by Philippine law and as contained in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Indigenous leaders have objected to these projects, insisting that the government respect their rights and obtain their consent for projects that affect them.

The United States has long supported efforts of the Philippine government and civil society to unlock the country’s potential to achieve inclusive, sustainable economic growth.  As ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of State and Foreign Operations, I have supported programs to help the Philippines combat poverty, strengthen democratic institutions, enhance maritime security, and protect the rights of its people.

Criminalizing these indigenous rights defenders would reverse progress the country has made, and threaten the functioning of civil society which is fundamental to any democracy.  Joan Carling, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, and other indigenous leaders and activists who from all indications are guilty of nothing more than defending their territories and cultures do not belong on a “terrorist” list.  Instead, the government should be defending their rights and protecting their safety and the safety of other indigenous leaders and human rights activists.   

And our own government – the Departments of State and Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development – as well as international financial institutions we support, should ensure that development activities are carried out in accordance with the rights of local communities, including the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent.

Mr. President, we all oppose terrorism wherever it occurs.  But our collective approach to preventing terrorism has too often made the problem worse, especially when the result is the curtailment of basic freedoms.  Labeling as “terrorists” political opponents or civil society activists who do not advocate or engage in violence and who, to the contrary, have been threatened and attacked for defending their rights, is one example of this, and it is an increasingly common tactic of governments.  Yet there are few if any ways more likely to cause people to resort to violence than by misusing government power to suppress legitimate dissent.  Far from stopping terrorism, adopting such abusive tactics sets back our collective efforts against terrorism.  

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