When you are labelled a terrorist because you defend your people’s rights – interview with Joan Carling
One day in March 2018, indigenous human rights activist and former member of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), Joan Carling, woke up to the news that she had been placed on a terrorist list by the Duterte administration in the Philippines, together with over 600 other people.
“When I learned about the terrorist list I felt angry and helpless at the same time. I am not a terrorist and I am proud to be an activist. I certainly believe I am doing the right thing, and to be categorised as a terrorist also comes with a lot of danger as we are criminalised. In a country like the Philippines to be on a terrorist list can - as Human Rights Watch says - be compared to being on a hit list,” Joan Carling said in an interview with IWGIA.
Given this threat, she has no immediate plans to return to her homeland, despite having fought for indigenous peoples’ rights for more than 30 years. However, she knows many people who have been unable to leave the country and are now in hiding in the local communities, fearing for their safety. She is therefore doing her best to help them from abroad.
More than 30 indigenous leaders and activists were named on the terrorist list submitted by Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Peter L. Ong to the Manila Court on 21st February 2018, even though no evidence has ever been produced for this serious and dangerous accusation.
Escalation of a long-standing conflict
In the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, human rights violations are a daily occurrence in one of the longest ongoing conflicts in Asia, in which more than 40,000 people have already been killed.
A rebellion was instigated by the Communist Party of the Philippines back in 1969 and several Islamic groups have since taken advantage of the Philippines government’s loose grip on power to make their own claims to the island as well. However, when Rodrigo Duterte, former Mayor of Mindanao’s most populous city, Davao City, was elected President of the Philippines in 2016, the situation changed. Duterte is known for his harsh and uncompromising style which, among others, has been experienced by the 20,000 alleged drug dealers who have been killed since he took office, many of them extrajudicially.
In May 2017, ISIS-affiliated Islamic groups stormed the city of Marawi and the Duterte administration responded by declaring Martial Law in the region. Although Duterte declared Marawi liberated in October 2017, he extended Martial Law for the whole of 2018. At the same time, he began negotiations with the Communist Party of the Philippines. These broke down in December 2017, however, and were shortly followed by condemnation from the Duterte administration, who now refer to them as terrorists.
Indigenous peoples: hostages of violence
Following the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao in 2017 and the subsequent militarisation of the area, several hundred thousand people fled their homes and are now internally displaced, despite most – if not all – of them having no connection to the rebellion. Many are, however, indigenous peoples who have lived in the area for generations.
The situation sparked widespread international criticism of the Duterte administration and, in December 2017, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, Ms Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, issued a statement warning that,
“The ongoing militarisation of Mindanao in the Philippines is having a massive and potentially irreversible impact on the human rights of some of the island’s indigenous Lumad communities."
Flawed rule of law
The militarisation of the region, combined with the countrywide ongoing war on drugs and very limited space for criticism of the Duterte administration’s methods, is creating a hostile environment for activists, who are discriminated against, illegally arrested and even killed for defending their rights. Last year, 41 indigenous activists were extrajudicially killed in the Philippines, making it the third most dangerous country in the world in which to be an activist.
“There is no rule of law in the Philippines. We are only asking the Philippine government to abide by their obligations, to respect the rights of their citizens and to have rule of law. To have democracy in a way that allows space for civil society without reprisals,” explains Joan Carling.
A situation that should worry everyone
The dangerous cocktail that has exploded in the indigenous peoples’ backyard gives them limited possibilities for defending their rights and, when they do, their protests are either dismissed or false accusations are fabricated against them. Ms Tauli-Corpuz, Joan Carling and more than 30 other indigenous leaders and activists were placed on the terrorist list, allegedly for being affiliated to the Communist Party, despite never being given a chance to defend themselves against this accusation.
Ms Tauli Corpuz (left side) and Joan Carling (right side)
The 8th of August, however, the Manila Regional Court ruled that Ms Tauli-Corpuz and three others on the list were “non-parties” and had no links to the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) or its New People’s Army (NPA). Now the hope is that other indigenous peoples on the list can be cleared from these allegations and return to their normal life.
Joan Carling hopes that the international community will send a strong message to the Philippine government and put increased pressure on the country to abide by its human rights obligations. She also hopes that the Human Rights Council will set up an independent inquiry to investigate the current human rights violations in the Philippines. She believes that this can be achieved, as it is a conflict that may affect us all if we do not act on the critical situation in the country.
“We need to remind ourselves that human rights are rights for us all. It is universal! What happens in the Philippines should worry everyone.”
You can read more about the situation of indigenous peoples in the Philippines here >>