Since assuming power in May 2016 Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has embarked on a controversial campaign against drugs in which over 3 000 people have been killed over three months in extra judicial killings for allegedly being drug peddlers or users. CIVICUS speaks to Roselle Rasay of Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE-NGO), the largest umbrella body of civil society organisations in the Philippines. She speaks on the situation of human rights in the Philippines and those speaking out against the drug war

1. What have been the main impacts of the president’s anti-drug campaign on human rights?
The anti-drug campaign is a blatant attack on human rights as the President himself is “encouraging” through his statements “vigilante” actions and for citizens to take up arms to kill drug pushers or users. The president has taken the side of the police being investigated for abuse in the anti-drug campaign; he also badmouths and undermines the Commission on Human Rights and other nations and institutions calling for investigations of blatant human rights violations in the ant-drug campaign. He also personally attacks and encourages, if not orchestrates, an all-out attack by his Justice Secretary and allies in Congress against Senator Leila de Lima who led the Senate investigations on this drug war, all to apparently silence or undermine the opposition. The majority of those being killed are from the poorest communities who may not even be drug users. There are very few big names being caught up in this save for a mayor who was killed after he voluntarily submitted himself for investigation because the authorities were looking for him. He was killed right at the jail. The impression was that he has knowledge of who else has knowledge on drugs matters.

2. How is civil society responding to these actions to try uphold rights?
While civil society is largely divided in their opinion or position on the matter, there are still some quarters that have mustered courage to go public and have denounced the excesses of the present administration. This is being done in various ways such as mobilisation and other actions against extra judicial killings. Several human rights groups and peace groups, have condemned the campaign, including my organisation CODE-NGO, by way of issuing statements in traditional and social media condemning the extra judicial killings that are related to the drug war being waged by the government. In social media though, these statements usually receive nasty responses from supporters of President Duterte, many of whom appear to be funded trolls. Lawyers taking up cases are also being attacked in this way.

The CODE-NGO general assembly recently passed a resolution calling on government arms ─ the legislative, the executive and the judiciary ─ to uphold human rights in this anti-drug campaign. Discussions are also ongoing among CSOs about providing orientation to their partner communities on how to protect themselves and assert their rights against house searches or arrests without warrants by the police.

3. Has civil society’s work to uphold rights provoked a backlash from the authorities?
Recently, the President said he will also kill human rights advocates if the campaign against drugs is stopped because of them and the illegal drug problem gets worse. The Commission on Human Rights is also being attacked by the President. There is apparent inaction by police authorities on reported cases of extra judicial killings with all of them being lumped into “deaths under investigation”.

4. How do human rights defenders feel? Are they becoming scared of speaking out?
There are no physical attacks on human rights defenders speaking against the killings in the government’s anti-drug campaign that we know of to date. However, at a community level the threats are creating fear because the police are going from house to house asking people to write their names and if they use drugs. Some people wouldn’t know what these forms mean. They just submit their data depending on the situation in the community. It creates trouble within some communities because neighbours would point to each other – some people in the community can also write down names of people they do not like. Some of those using drugs will point to others. Among CSOs, some are very much against it and are emboldened in their work and are very vocal about their sentiments about the campaign. Others do not openly express their disagreement of the campaign because they are careful not to jeopardise other advocacies they are working out with government, such as the peace talks, agrarian reform and others.

5. What do you think is the impact that CODE NGO has in improving the situation of civic space?
Over the years CODE-NGO has provided venues for civil society to clarify and understand the various social and political issues affecting a particular sector of our society and/or the country in general. This has not only provided an opportunity to enhance knowledge but more so to consolidate civil society forces and efforts to address issues concerning the environment by which they are able to do their work.

In the past, we have been successful in improving policies related to the regulation of CSOs and in improving the public image and public support for CSOs. However, it is too early to tell if CODE-NGO and other CSOs can successfully defend and promote civic space given the President’s pronouncements and actions. We certainly hope we can.

Currently, CODE-NGO is trying to engage specific persons or offices in government who could have the influence to improve civic space situation or are more open to listening to CSOs such as the Office of the Vice President, Department of Interior and Local Government and the Office of the Cabinet Secretary.
As a national association of CSOs in Philippines, a large part of our work is in strengthening capacities of CSOs in the Philippines in being effective in their work, creating accountability in public institutions and showing that we’re also accountable. That adds to our legitimacy and making sure government will listen to us if we are legitimate. We have also been part of several policy advocacy processes in the past supporting the creation of local resources for local CSOs. We are advocating for policies for a more enabling regulatory environment for civil society. Given the current context, it is still too early – only six months into the new presidency, to tell how these will all turn out. But we must think about future steps and be vigilant to make sure that civic space is not constricted.

6. What do you think are the main challenges you are facing as a CSO network in improving civic space conditions?
A challenge has always been relating with government because of politics – the difficulty in the Philippines is that we have very good laws but implementation is poor depending on who is the leader. The level of participation by CSOs in governance changes and varies with who is in power. So we must always be aware of political realities.

There is also little funding for advocacy work. It is widely acknowledged that CSO networks perform important convening, capacity-building and advocacy roles, but sadly, there is not much support for this kind of infrastructural work. Sustainability of CSOs and their work have been challenged, especially those doing human rights campaigns and advocacy. Some other CSOs would have better access because they give very direct products and service. But it is difficult for advocacy groups and networks who focus on coalition building and capacity building of local CSOs; there is not much support for that kind of work.


7. What other challenges do civil society organisations and human rights defenders face in the country?
We have seen gains in the past years of opening up civic space. In the previous administration, there was a generally friendly environment for civil society. Currently, the environment is still quite open because we still have open media. There is no apparent suppression – the gains of fighting for democracy has not been affected. Although there is a feeling of creeping reintroduction of authoritarianism. While it is very open and safe, we’re worried that the space is constricting and can soon get tight.

Currently, it is still easy to register a CSO and run one. Cost-wise the fees are very low for setting up an organisation. Registering authorities require very basic documents. However, more recently, there have been stricter guidelines about CSOs accessing government funds, although very few CSOs actually access that money. The government made it stricter by requiring additional accreditation. These factors restrict the work of CSOs a bit. But this is not because of President Duterte. It was a policy from 2013 as a reaction of government to fake NGOs accessing the legislators’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or ‘pork barrel’ funds and implementing ghost projects. But we thought making CSO accreditation tougher after the PDAF scam was a knee-jerk reaction on the part of government; the scam came about so that some legislators and government officials could dip their hands into government’s coffers through these fake NGOs.

8. What could the international community and international civil society do to support civil society in the Philippines?
Statements of solidarity with local CSOs; independent investigations; support for human rights activists and sharing of successful campaigning models would be important.

On the attacks on human rights activists, solidarity messages from the rest of civil society from all over the world would be of help. Exchanges on campaigning, tips on how we can improve online campaigning would be useful because while CSOs have been quite active and able to advocate for policies, we’re worried about the changing environment and would like to learn how others have been successful in their campaigns.

Roselle Rasay is the Deputy Executive Director at Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE-NGO). CODE-NGO is the largest coalition of civil society organizations (CSOs) working for social development in the Philippines, with its six national networks and six sub-national networks representing more than 1 600 development NGOs, people’s organisations and cooperatives nationwide. Contact CODE-NGO on their Facebook page  or visit their website and follow them on Twitter @CODE_NGO

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