The bitter truth about NTF-Elcac
Nothing stings like the truth, especially when spoken by a foreigner with all the dispassionate clarity of outsider’s perspective. Last week was one such occasion, when the country’s anti-insurgency task force wound up at the receiving end of a brutal dose of honesty, courtesy of United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur Ian Fry.
The UN official, whose job involves “promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change,” stirred up a hornet’s nest by endorsing the repeal of the anti-terrorism law and the disbandment of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac), as he said both were being weaponized by the state against guardians of environmental rights.
“The government needs to create a clean slate around its approach to antiterrorism and revise the laws to make them appropriate for the circumstances occurring now, and not to use the laws to harass, vilify and kill environmental human rights defenders,” Fry said.
He added that NTF-Elcac must be dismantled as it “is operating beyond its original mandate and is Red-tagging people from the community.”
There wasn’t much response to his first proposal to revoke the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, likely because it’s a moot point, since the Supreme Court has upheld the law except for two provisions in a 2021 decision, which the tribunal affirmed last year.
As expected, however, Fry’s other proposal to abolish NTF-Elcac swiftly drew outrage from onion-skinned officials.
National Security Adviser Eduardo Año, vice chair of NTF-Elcac, took “strong exception” to Fry’s statements, saying he “should have raised his concerns with us to ensure that he has a full appreciation of the body’s mandate, operations, and overall directions.”
Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla disputed the wisdom of Fry’s offered solution, saying government enemies “have been reduced,” thanks to NTF-Elcac.
“They should not interfere. They shouldn’t meddle in how we run our government,” Remulla said.
National Youth Commission chair Ronald Cardema, speaking at an NTF-Elcac press briefing, said the UN rapporteur should be declared a persona non grata, as he “knows nothing about what is happening in the Philippines and our good solutions to rebellion in our country.”
The problem is that the more these officials talk, the more Fry’s comments make sense.
Consider that if it were another Filipino talking about abolishing the NTF-Elcac, Año and company would be singing a different but familiar tune—that he or she must be a communist rebel or sympathizer, the practice widely known in these parts as “Red-tagging,” and now the typical recourse of our security officials.
In fact, we need only take a page from old news reports: Many public figures, from former vice president Leni Robredo to Kabataan party list Rep. Raoul Manuel, had already sought the termination of the anti-insurgency body in years past, to little avail.
In response to Manuel’s call in June 2022, NTF-Elcac issued a sarcastic challenge to the youth party list lawmaker asking him to renounce Asia’s longest communist insurgency. “As to your wish to abolish the NTF-Elcac, continue your nightmare, Raoul Manuel, because the NTF-Elcac is here to stay,” it said.
Here comes Fry, who is of Australian and Tuvalu descent, making a similar call.
“There [were] clearly people who suffered dramatically as a consequence of the persecution of environmental rights defenders and there needs to be a process to properly review the effects of the actions of the military,” the UN rapporteur said.
The fact is Fry is not breaking any new ground in his recommendations, as these are things we know ourselves. What is clear is any achievement claimed by NTF-Elcac for supposedly ridding communities of communist influence will always be overshadowed by the harm it has caused and is causing our country.
In August, NTF-Elcac’s former spokespersons, SMNI host Lorraine Badoy and retired Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr., were reprimanded by the Ombudsman for branding a lawyers’ group as a front for the underground communist movement.
It was the lightest possible punishment but the decision sent the message that Red-tagging should not be tolerated, and highlighted the role of NTF-Elcac in both its preponderance and fatal consequences: In 2022, 11 environmental defenders were killed, while some 15 community organizers were abducted under the Marcos administration.
We grant that NTF-Elcac is not responsible for the actions of other state forces. But it is directly to blame for fostering an environment that vilifies rights defenders as the enemy and legitimizes the deadly actions taken against them, allegedly, by their own government.
Therefore, it is unwise to dismiss Fry’s perfectly reasonable proposal to abolish NTF-Elcac as just the words of a clueless foreigner, because, unlike local rights defenders, he at least enjoys a privilege unique to non-Filipinos—speaking the bitter truth without fear of being Red-tagged.