CIVICUS speaks with Nymia Pimentel-Simbulan about the human rights situation in the Philippines since the start of Ferdinand Marcos Junior’s government. Nymia is chairperson of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) and Executive Director of the Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights).
Established in 1991, PhilRights serves as PAHRA’s research and information centre. Its vision is that of a society where each person can fully realise their potential, participate effectively in economic, political and cultural life and benefit from economic progress.
Has the relationship between government and civil society changed under the new government?
The relationship between state and civil society hasn’t changed under the new government – it hasn’t worsened, but it hasn’t improved either. However, since the government is now headed by the son of a former dictator who came to power in a suspicious manner, civil society organisations (CSOs) approach it with caution, scepticism and a lukewarm attitude.
Overall, conditions for civil society work have not improved, as numerous policies and programmes that restrict the activities and functioning of CSOs, particularly human rights organisations, remain in effect. For instance, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 (Republic Act 11,497), which has the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) as its primary implementing entity, persists in its campaign to discredit human rights advocates through red-tagging – labelling people and groups as associated with communism. Threats, harassment and killings of human rights defenders (HRDs) – including civil society activists, environmentalists, human rights lawyers, trade unionists and Indigenous leaders – have continued. Journalists such as 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa have not been exempt from attacks either. Multiple trumped-up charges have been filed against her as part of the government’s sustained efforts to stifle dissent.
Has the government shifted its focus from the ‘war on drugs’ to other policy issues?
We have not seen any significant differences in priorities or approaches to economic, foreign relations, environmental and human rights issues between current president Ferdinando Marcos Junior and former president Rodrigo Duterte.
However, while the focus on the drug problem remains, there has been a discursive shift from Duterte’s punitive and violent approach to an anti-drug campaign emphasising prevention and rehabilitation. But this hasn’t translated into an end to extrajudicial killings, which continue unabated in impoverished urban areas that are known to be havens for drug-related activities. Dahas, a research group from the University of the Philippines, reported 342 instances of drug-related killings carried out by state and non-state groups and people during the first year of the new government. The targets of the anti-drug campaign continue to be minor drug users and low-level peddlers. As happened under the previous administration, prominent drug lords remain untouched.
Meanwhile, people’s quality of life continues to decline and food insecurity has worsened due to the impact of continuous increases in oil and fuel prices, pushing up the cost of essential commodities and services. Staples such as rice, sugar, onions and flour have become scarce in many Filipino households. The president has failed to take decisive action on the pressing food problem, even though he also serves as Secretary of Agriculture.
What support does the president enjoy?
According to a recent survey, the president enjoys substantial approval and trust ratings, standing at around 80 per cent. These scores are consistent across regions and socioeconomic groups.
I believe this phenomenon reflects how the government’s information and communication machinery has effectively crafted, packaged and disseminated Marcos Junior’s and his administration’s endeavours, policies and priorities, primarily featuring messages of unity and concern for the poor. Social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok and YouTube have served as the main channels for conveying these messages, enabling the government to reach out to the majority of the population, who predominantly rely on social media as news sources.
How is Filipino civil society working to protect and promote human rights?
Filipino CSOs, including PhilRights, are actively involved in human rights education, research, documentation of rights violations and community mobilisation through grassroots organisations, schools, universities, factories and churches.
Civil society pursues five primary goals. We advocate for the adoption of the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill and combat the vilification campaign against HRDs, including the red-tagging of civil society activists. We seek justice for victims of extrajudicial killings in the context of the ‘war on drugs’ through lobbying at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and International Criminal Court. We work to address economic concerns, including food insecurity, by trying to achieve reductions in the costs of basic goods and services, promoting decent employment opportunities and fair wages and providing adequate housing for urban poor residents. We engage in environmental protection efforts, which involve advocating for an end to large-scale mining activities like open-pit mining, particularly in Indigenous peoples’ communities.
How is the international community supporting this work?
Filipino civil society benefits from international solidarity coming from various government missions, human rights organisations and religious groups that support our lobbying efforts at the UNHRC. They release press statements, position papers and reports addressing human rights issues and concerns in the Philippines. They provide essential funding and material assistance to Filipino CSOs for our diverse human rights and development initiatives. Moreover, as leaders of civil society and HRDs, we are frequently invited to speak about the human rights situation in the Philippines to organisations and groups abroad, keeping them informed and keeping solidarity alive.
Civic space in the Philippines is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.