Members of the New Peoples Army (NPA), armed group of the Communist Party of the Philippines, are silhouetted during graduation after their military training in their jungle hideout in Lianga in southern Mindanao island March 13, 2004.

© 2004 Reuters

The Philippine government is putting at grave risk more than 600 people – among them a United Nations human rights expert and dozens of leftist activists – by labeling them as members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).

In a petition filed in a Manila court dated February 21, 2018, seen by Human Rights Watch, the Department of Justice submitted a 55-page list that included long-time leaders of the communist movement such as Netherlands-based Jose Maria Sison, who founded the CPP in 1969, but also Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. Tauli-Corpuz, a Philippine national known for advocating for the rights of indigenous people in the Philippines, denied the allegation, calling it “baseless, malicious and irresponsible.”

The Justice Department suit appears to stem from President Rodrigo Duterte’s signed proclamation that the CPP and NPA were terrorist groups, which followed the collapse of peace negotiations in December. In January, he announced he would “go after the legal fronts” – the left-wing groups that allegedly support the NPA.

Previously, Duterte has had a close relationship with the communist movement, even appointing some leftist leaders to his cabinet. Many communist and left-wing activists initially supported him and did not oppose his murderous “war on drugs,” which has caused more than 12,000 deaths. But after the peace talks broke down, they turned against him.

Government accusations that international human rights experts have links to the NPA seek to undermine the valuable work they do to promote accountability for rights abuses. Apart from Tauli-Corpuz, Duterte and his supporters have threatened to harm  and sought to discredit Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, who has sought to investigate the “drug war” killings.

The Justice Department petition is a virtual government hit list. There's a long history in the Philippines of the state security forces and pro-government militias assassinating people labeled as NPA members or supporters. The Duterte administration should publicly reject this petition and ensure the safety of those listed in it – or risk being complicit in the resulting crimes.