By Rodrigo Bacus
Recent killings of indigenous people in the region of Mindanao in the Philippines have shed light on the ongoing human rights violations in the region, leading to international calls for solidarity and demands for justice. In the early morning of Sept. 1, a paramilitary group of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Magahat Bagani Force, also known as the Marcos Bocales Group, shot and killed cousins Dionel Campos and Juvello Sinzo in Mindanao. Both of these men were members of an indigenous people’s rights organization, the Mahalutayong Pakigbisog Alang sa Sumusunod (MAPASU). On the same day, witnesses found the body of Emerito Samarca, Executive Director of Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV), in one of the center’s classrooms. Samarca’s body showed signs of torture before the paramilitary group either shot him to death or left him for dead. The same paramilitary group also set fire to a community cooperative store and part of another indigenous people school, the Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur (TRIFPSS). These murders and abuses are part of a larger pattern of human rights violations by the AFP and its paramilitaries against indigenous people in Mindanao, who are called the “Lumad,” meaning “people of the earth.”
INCREASING MILITARIZATION, INCREASING VIOLENCE
Human rights activists link the Magahat Bagani Force paramilitary group with the Eastern Mindanao Command of the AFP, and see increased militarization in Mindanao as part of what is spurring the violence. Paramilitary groups in Mindanao are private armies of people recruited from the local community, including “datus,” the honorific title referring to tribal leaders. The AFP and the Philippine government deny direct or indirect involvement with paramilitary groups. However, the AFP’s and the paramilitaries’ harassment, displacement, and extrajudicial killings of the Lumad and human rights defenders in the area is undeniable and was recently highlighted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. The pattern of human rights violations, according to the special rapporteur, is directly linked to either the militarization of the area or the increasing presence of industrial mining companies, which have been criticized for displacing indigenous people from their land. Moreover, the special rapporteur added that Lumads and their datus have been killed specifically for their activities in protest of mining companies.
For human rights activists and people directly impacted by the Philippine government’s counterinsurgency tactics, officially known as Oplan Bayanihan, the increased militarization to protect the interests of mining companies is very real, and has placed many of them at serious risk of physical harm and other human rights violations. For example, Samarca ran a human rights-based alternative learning center, and was actively involved in activist farmer organizations. Similarly, Sinzo and Campos were members of Lumad rights organizations. The paramilitary groups specifically targeted these three victims because of their association with Lumad organizations and alternative schools. In a process known as “red tagging,” the AFP and its paramilitary groups have historically targeted innocent human rights defenders with threats of death and accusations that they are members of the New People’s Army, a military group in the Philippines waging a protracted people’s war against the government. These red tagging incidents can result in the death or injury of the targeted person. Witnesses have testified that the same red tagging occurred with Samarca, Sinzo and Campos before they were killed by paramilitary group.
SEEKING ACCOUNTABILITY UNDER THE LAW
The three deaths represent deplorable extrajudicial killings that must be condemned. The Human Rights Committee has explicitly identified “arbitrary killings” in the hands of government security forces as a violation of the right to life under Article 6 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the Philippines is a party. Since red tagging identifies someone as a criminal and often results in the death of that person without a proper trial or sentencing by a competent court, these red tagging killings are a violation of Article 9 of the ICCPR, which protects the liberty and security of persons. Moreover, the deaths of Samarca, Sinzo and Campos are only the tip of the iceberg. Human rights violations committed by the Philippine government are rampant in Mindanao, and there must be accountability.
The targeting of Lumad school leaders and activists coupled with the burning of the schools themselves deny the Lumad their right to education and right to cultural life under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which the Philippines is a party. ALCADEV, the alternative learning center that Samarca headed, was created to fill a void in educational access for the Lumad who live in rural areas of Mindanao. ALCADEV provides secondary education to Lumad children, and teaches classes on sustainable agriculture, Lumad culture and human rights. ALCADEV was so successful in its curriculum and in reaching students from remote areas that it received an award for its efforts from the Philippine Department of Education. However, the mission of ALCADEV to promote self-determined and sustainable growth and to oppose industrial mining companies is at odds with the Philippine government’s interests in opening up the Philippines to industrial agriculture, logging and mining companies. The targeting of community leaders, human rights activists and schools—including through arson—represents a deliberate act by the Philippine government to retrogress the educational rights of Lumad children. The government is seeking to cut off their ability to learn and to deny their rights to cultural life and to self-determination over development. The Philippines, which is a state party to the ICCPR, the ICESCR and many other human rights treaties, must meet their legal obligations immediately. The Philippine government must ensure that these human rights abuses stop and that the AFP and its associated paramilitary groups are held accountable.
ROLE OF ECONOMIC INCENTIVES
The interests in acquiring the land of the Lumad to monetize its wealth are very strong. The Philippines is one of the largest depositories of gold and has similarly large deposits of nickel and copper. These deposits lie within regions that are home to the Lumad, who regard the flora, fauna and land as part of their heritage and cultural life. The terror spread by the AFP and paramilitary groups have displaced the Lumad from their home, paving the way for industrial mining companies to establish their foothold in these lands, and to disregard the principle of free, prior and informed consent. The deaths of Samarca, Sinzo and Campos as well as the targeting of the schools have resulted in the displacement of 2,000 Lumad who have evacuated the area for fear of their safety. In addition, the attacks on schools in general have kept almost 3,000 children from enjoying their right to education.
All of this highlights the horrifying reality of what some have described as the “ugly face of our current rapacious global material and energy consumption.” As the international community stands with the Lumad and these three recent victims of paramilitary attacks, it must also strive to recognize a broader system of development that promotes participation, and respects and centralizes the fundamental human rights of all, particularly those who are directly impacted.
Local people demonstrated their overwhelming support of the Lumad school leaders by arriving in the tens of thousands for Samarca’s funeral. I regret being unable to personally pay respects to this dedicated and friendly man, who I had seen co-participating in the International People’s Conference on Mining. Furthermore, under the hashtag #StopLumadKillings, directly impacted people, activists and their solidarity networks have continued to send updates about human rights violations in Mindanao and highlight the abuses of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and its paramilitary groups. The international community must continue to call for justice and accountability: the Philippine government must abide by its international human rights obligations and address the killings and abuses perpetrated by the AFP and its paramilitary groups.
Rodrigo Bacus is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
Photo credit: Keith Bacongco/Creative Commons