Philippines Adopts ‘Drug War’ Measures Against Activists

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A woman carries a slogan condemning government attacks on activists at a rally to mark International Women’s Day, Manila, Philippines on March 8, 2021.
© 2021 Aaron Favila/AP Images

The authorities in the Cordillera region of the northern Philippines have adopted a counterinsurgency strategy drawn from methods used in President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous “war on drugs.”  Known as tokhang, a Visayan word meaning “to knock and plead,” police and local authorities visit the homes or offices of activists they accuse of supporting or “fronting” for the communist New People’s Army to “plead” with them to stop supporting the insurgency.

These measures put leftist activists and others at grave risk by “red-tagging” them, a long-time government practice of linking individuals to the communist insurgents. Over the years, many of those “red-tagged” had been harassed, arbitrarily arrested, or killed.

The police-led visits are authorized under a resolution adopted by Cordillera authorities earlier this month. Philippine rights groups are fearful that this abusive practice will be expanded nationwide.

Under the “war on drugs,” the police have killed thousands of suspected drug dealers and users after arriving at the person’s home, saying they shot the suspect because they fought back or resisted arrest. The anti-drug campaign has been replete with extrajudicial killings, planting of evidence, and arbitrary arrests, among other abuses.

Activists tell Human Rights Watch they are worried that the authorities may use similar false claims to justify the killing of activists during tokhang visits. The new strategy is already sowing fears among social justice groups whose democratic space has been increasingly constrained.

This is only the latest example of the Duterte government promising the United Nations that it would improve the human rights situation in the country while taking measures that do just the opposite, making a mockery of the human rights program it entered into with the UN Human Rights Council and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. These institutions and donors such as the European Union, United States, and Japan should be alarmed by this new strategy and raise their voices in opposition before it is enforced more widely in the Philippines.

No one should wait for this dangerous new risk to the lives of activists to escalate.

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