UN expert: Time to scrap anticommunist task force
The United Nations special rapporteur (UNSR) on freedom of expression and opinion has called on the Philippine government to scrap an anticommunist task force which has been blamed for endangering the lives and safety of human rights defenders, activists, independent journalists and the opposition by Red-tagging them.
UNSR Irene Khan said during a press briefing at the end of her 10-day visit to the Philippines on Friday that the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) was created in a “different context” six years ago, making it “outdated.”
“It does not take into account the ongoing prospects of peace negotiations. I therefore recommend that the task force should be abolished,” she said.
A joint statement in November 2023 by the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) cited a possible revival of peace talks, which were terminated in 2018 by then President Rodrigo Duterte who established the NTF-Elcac with the aim of finally crushing the more than half-century-old insurgency.
“The abolition will not only address some of the most critical drivers of Red-tagging, but it could also allow this administration to modernize peace-building approaches based on this changing political landscape,” Khan added.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has adopted the definition of Red-tagging by the nonprofit International Peace Observers Network as an “act of state actors, particularly law enforcement agencies, to publicly brand individuals, groups, or institutions as affiliated to communist or leftist terrorists.”
The dangers of Red-tagging were “evident,” according to Khan, as vilification was often followed by threats, unlawful surveillance, attacks, or even unlawful killing.
“It intimidates and chills freedom of expression. It suppresses legal actors, it isolates and antagonizes those who are unfairly attacked,” Khan added.
In her meetings with civil society groups, human rights defenders, humanitarian workers, teachers, youth, priests and health workers, Khan said she “heard again and again” complaints about Red-tagging. Many of the victims of vilification pointed fingers at state agencies, specifically the NTF-Elcac, “as either the culprit or instigator,” she said.
This Red-tagging “intensified online and offline” during the Duterte administration, she added.
Khan said she recommended that the government also adopt a policy that will fight Red-tagging through an executive order by President Marcos that would denounce the practice and set out clear measures to “discourage, disincentivize and discipline” those who violate the policy.
She said she also urged the CHR to expedite its ongoing work of defining Red-tagging and help in crafting legislation on it.
Khan reminded the Philippine government that critical reportage on state policies, speaking out about human rights violations, as well as “economic and social injustices that are the root of violent extremism are all legitimate activities both under international law and the Philippines’ law.”
“In a democratic society, yes, the state certainly has the obligation to protect its people from terrorism but it must do so within the confines of the rule of law and in line with its international human rights obligations,” she said.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), human rights group Karapatan and other activist groups were jubilant over Khan’s recommendation.
“We share Ms Khan’s views about Red-tagging, and we agree that the NTF-Elcac should be abolished for its role in vilifying dissent, reportage, and the legitimate exercise of civil and political rights,” the NUJP said. Khan was the second UNSR who had recommended the abolition of the government’s anticommunist agency after visiting the country three months ago.
Ian Fry, the UNSR on promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, also made the same recommendation.“Her findings on how Red- and terror-tagging has promoted and engendered a chilling effect on freedom of expression, on the lingering culture of impunity, and the continuing denial of justice for victims of rights violations in the Philippines are consistent with the sordid realities that journalists, freedom of expression advocates, activists and ordinary folks experience under the Marcos Jr. administration,” Karapatan said.
ACT supported Khan’s call for an executive order discouraging Red- or terror-tagging.
“NUJP is also elated that Ms Khan pointed out how Cybercrime Prevention Act has chilled media freedom, particularly the provision on cyberlibel. She described libel laws as a relic of the colonial past. It is high time that the Philippines decriminalizes libel,” the NUJP said. Security and other officials who met with Khan during an “exit conference” on Friday, rejected her recommendation, saying it wasn’t yet time to dismantle the task force, which they credited with helping defeat the insurgents.
National Security Adviser Eduardo Año said in a statement that the government had achieved a “strategic victory” against the communist rebels.
“To turn back now will be counterproductive and would render moot the whole-of-nation approach that has been very successful in breaking the back” of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front of the Philippines (CPP-NPA-NDFP).
According to him, “the fact remains that the communists are not yet finished” as there were still 11 guerrilla fronts, though weakened, with some 1,500 NPA fighters.
Once all the guerrilla fronts have been dismantled, “hopefully this year,” Año said the NTF-Elcac would transition to a new task force to be called NTF-Unity Peace and Development.
He said the NTF-Elcac was not encouraging or supporting Red-tagging.
“We wish to underscore once again the Marcos administration has not issued any law, rule, or policy instrument that implements Red-tagging or even uses the word Red-tagging,” he added.
No legal definition
“There is also no legal and binding definition nor is it considered a crime under the laws of the Republic of the Philippines,” Año said.
Any aggrieved party may file cases in court, he added.
Justice Undersecretary Raul Vasquez said the government explained to Khan that the judiciary “acts on its own and is not interfered upon by the executive and the legislative” branches.
Peace adviser Carlito Galvez Jr. said the mandate of the NTF-Elcac “must continue in harmonizing the whole-of-government and whole-of-nation approach in addressing the roots and causes of the armed conflict.”
“It should continue in implementing the peace, security and development projects intended for poor and vulnerable areas nationwide,” he said in a text message to the Inquirer.
In a statement, Undersecretary Ernesto Torres Jr., executive director of the NTF-Elcac said that the task force was “very successful in its campaign” over the past five years.
“Advocating for good governance through the ‘whole-of-nation/whole-of-government participation’ approach never gets outdated,” Torres said.
Repeating Año’s statement, Jonathan Malaya, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said the “proper time” to abolish the task force is when all the NPA guerrilla fronts had been dismantled or a political settlement had been signed with the rebels.
“So, it would be irresponsible for the NTF-Elcac to be abolished right now because we have not yet achieved total victory,” Malaya said in a news conference.
Sen. Francis Escudero also disagreed with Khan’s recommendation, saying that the task force still had a role to play in the peace process.
Sen. Koko Pimentel, on the other hand, agreed with Khan’s recommendations, saying that he had noticed that NTF-Elcac funds were “very difficult to liquidate” with the Commission on Audit.
The NTF-Elcac is supported by a P10.3-billion budget for 2024, 8.9 percent more than what it received in 2023, but much smaller than the P17.1 billion it got in 2022 and P19 billion in 2021.
The cuts in the budget for the task force followed allegations of misuse of the 2022 funds.
Over P8.6 billion of the 2024 budget will be used to fund various infrastructure projects and assistance to individuals or families in barangays certified by the task force as cleared of rebel influence. —WITH REPORTS FROM KRIXIA SUBINGSUBING, JACOB LAZARO, DONA Z. PAZZIBUGAN AND INQUIRER RESEARCH