(New York) – The Philippine government should immediately drop its plan to organize new militias that would worsen the country’s disastrous human rights situation, Human Rights Watch said today. The Philippines has a long history of arming civilians in militias or other organized groups that have been responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, and other rights violations committed with impunity.
On June 25, 2021, the Philippine National Police chief, Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, announced the creation of the “Global Coalition of Lingkod Bayan Advocacy Support Groups and Force Multipliers” (lingkod bayan is Tagalog for “public service”). General Eleazar said that the coalition, composed of 11 “international and local organizations,” would help the government fight crime and illegal drugs as well as the country’s long-running communist insurgency.
“Arming largely untrained and unaccountable militias is a recipe for another human rights disaster under President Duterte,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s incredible that despite the growing international backlash against Duterte-linked abuses, the government is still devising more ways to threaten the lives of ordinary Filipinos.”
President Rodrigo Duterte, in a speech to announce the coalition, said that these militias would be armed: “If you have this coalition, you have a list of people who are there and who can arm themselves. I will order the police. If you are qualified, get a gun and help us enforce the laws.” Eleazar supported the president’s statement, pointing out that “there is no reason to prevent members of civilian volunteer groups to enjoy the same privilege” others have to carry firearms.
The Philippine government’s deployment and support of armed civilian groups is not new. The Ferdinand Marcos administration created the abusive Civilian Home Defense Forces in 1976. This was followed in the late 1980s by hundreds of notorious, military-backed “vigilante” groups, such as Alsa Masa (“masses arise”) and Tadtad (“chop chop”). In 1987, the government created the Citizen Armed Force Geographic Units (CAFGU), an auxiliary armed force that still consists of thousands of personnel.
Duterte said in his June 25 speech that in his early days as mayor of Davao City, militias helped drive the communist insurgents out of the city. Largely untrained and with unclear command and control structures, these militias were responsible for countless abuses, particularly as part of counterinsurgency operations. They were also engaged to help the military provide security to big companies, especially in mining and logging areas, where many also committed abuses.
In addition to the dangers of using armed civilians to combat crime, the deadly “war on drugs,” and New People’s Army rebels, national elections slated for 2022 create additional opportunities for abuse, Human Rights Watch said. Many so-called private armies operate under the control of local mayors and governors. In the infamous Maguindanao Massacre in 2009, a political warlord, his family members, and state-backed militias summarily executed 58 people and buried them on a hill in Maguindanao province on Mindanao Island.
Human Rights Watch and other domestic and international organizations have long called on successive Philippine governments to rescind the directives that justify the creation of these groups.
“By creating a new militia, the Duterte administration seems more intent than ever on shielding the police and military from accountability for serious abuses,” Adams said. “The government should drop this dangerous idea, which the Philippines’ friends abroad should publicly oppose.”