The prevailing culture of hostility and violence against human rights and their defenders appears to have claimed another life.
On May 1, 28-year-old peace advocate and human rights worker Archad Ayao was heading home at around 6 p.m. in Cotabato City when he and his habal-habal driver were shot multiple times in the head by a motorcycle-riding gunman.
A few days later, the alleged gunman, also a habal-habal driver, voluntarily surrendered to the mayor of Cotabato City and said it was “road rage” that caused him to shoot his fellow driver and Ayao. His voluntary surrender raised more questions than answers, however, since his statement contradicts the police report that Ayao and the driver had been followed and were shot at close range from behind.
Human rights groups are more inclined to believe that Ayao’s death was connected to his work looking into feared human rights violations in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which has remained under martial law like the rest of Mindanao since May 2017. If that premise proves correct, Ayao would be the latest addition to the 134 human rights defenders killed so far under the Duterte administration, according to the rights group Karapatan.
On April 22, rights advocate and city councilor Bernardino Patigas was gunned down in Escalante City, Negros Occidental. Just hours later, a number of his colleagues, including Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay, received threatening text messages warning they would likewise be killed.
Then in March 2018, military officials linked Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, to “terrorist activities” of the Communist Party of the Philippines, in what Amnesty International said was a seeming attempt to undermine her work as a human rights defender.
The work of human rights defenders is to peacefully promote, defend and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed by various international human rights instruments, said the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, an international watchdog. But such work makes these defenders “prone to acts of reprisals, harassment, and violations of their rights by both state and nonstate actors.”
In the Philippines, President Duterte has not disguised his antipathy toward human rights. “I don’t care about human rights, believe me,” he said in 2016. In May 2017, he was more explicit: “Do not believe these human rights activists. I’ll kill you along with drug addicts, I’ll decapitate you.”
Despite these chilling words, Malacañang refuses to accept the idea that Mr. Duterte’s violent rhetoric and sustained vilification of human rights and rights activists may have dangerous consequences—not only the erosion of basic due process and the rule of law, but also the outright threat to the lives of human rights defenders.
In a February 2019 report, the Observatory lamented that “From July 2016 to November 2018, at least 76 land and environmental rights defenders, 12 journalists, and several civil society and labor activists were killed in relation to their work. They have also been subjected to attacks, threats, and acts of intimidation.” The “dramatic deterioration of the situation for human rights defenders under Duterte” is “the direct result of his administration’s disregard for human rights,” said the report.
The World Organisation Against Torture, the network behind the Observatory, added through its secretary general Gerald Staberock: “President Duterte’s violent rhetoric has created a climate in which attacks against human rights defenders are acceptable and perpetrators are never punished.”
Such international groups and even foreign governments have urged the administration to carry out “prompt, thorough, impartial and transparent investigations into all allegations of human rights violations” and killings against rights advocates. But Mr. Duterte’s combative disregard for human rights remains, for all intents and purposes, the de facto policy, which means Ayao will not be the last to fall under what the Observatory group described as the “open season” declared on the human rights community—an unforgiving climate of impunity directed at anyone who dares raise a voice against the abuses of the ruling dispensation.
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