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Events of 2023

A woman places a candle between pictures of victims of alleged enforced disappearances during a gathering of relatives and supporters in observance of All Souls Day in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, November 2, 2023.

© 2023 ROLEX DELA PENA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The human rights situation in the Philippines remains dire amid extrajudicial killings, attacks against political activists and journalists, and abuses committed during the armed conflict with the 54-year-old communist insurgency. The government has increasingly constricted democratic space by using the justice system to target leftist activist groups.

Nonetheless, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s measured rhetoric about human rights is a stark contrast to the unabashedly anti-rights positions of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, whose catastrophic “war on drugs” killed thousands. In several international forums, Marcos has affirmed his administration’s commitment to human rights. The government has likewise begun engaging more openly with international actors, for example, by inviting UN human rights experts to the country.

The Philippine government still refuses to cooperate with the investigation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) into possible crimes against humanity committed in the context of Duterte’s “drug war” and when Duterte was mayor of Davao City. In January 2023, the ICC’s pre-trial chamber authorized the Office of the Prosecutor to resume its investigation following a request by the Philippine government to defer the inquiry to national authorities. The government appealed, contending that the ICC judges erred by dismissing Manila’s position that the court no longer has jurisdiction over the situation in the Philippines after its withdrawal from the court’s founding treaty took effect in March 2019. In July 2023, the ICC appeals chamber confirmed the prosecutor’s resumption of the investigation, paving the way for the next step toward justice for the thousands of victims of extrajudicial killings and their families in the government’s “war on drugs.”

Extrajudicial Killings

Marcos has not ended Duterte’s “drug war.” Law enforcement officers and their agents continue to conduct raids using the former president’s orders as justification. The official “drug war” death toll from July 1, 2016, to May 31, 2022, is 6,252; unidentified gunmen murdered thousands more. The Philippine government has not updated its statistics since May 2022.

While the killings have significantly dropped overall since Marcos took office on June 30, 2022, they have continued. According to monitoring by the University of the Philippines Third World Studies Center, more drug-related killings occurred in the first year of the Marcos administration than in the Duterte administration’s final year. As of November 15, 471 people have been killed in drug-related violence under Marcos, perpetrated both by law enforcers and unidentified assailants. Most of these cases, as with the previous ones, remain uninvestigated. In Davao City, a hotspot of drug-related killings according to the University of the Philippines’ data, police have perpetrated most killings.

Many extrajudicial killings have taken place in the context of political violence, particularly linked to elections. On March 4, ex-military men stormed the residence of Negros Oriental governor Roel Degamo and killed him and nine others. A political rival has been implicated in the massacre, which is the worst incident of political violence in the Philippines since the Maguindanao Massacre in 2009.

Journalists have also been targeted, with 4 killed so far under Marcos, bringing the death toll since 1986, when democracy was restored, up to 177. The latest fatality reported was Cresenciano Bunduquin, a broadcaster in Oriental Mindoro province who was gunned down on May 31. The killing in October 2022 of popular radio commentator Percy Mabasa remains unsolved.

Insurgency-related killings have noticeably worsened, particularly on the island of Negros, which has long been a hotbed of the communist movement. In June, a couple and their two children were killed by gunmen in Negros Occidental; relatives and witnesses said the military had earlier accused the couple of working for the communist New People’s Army (NPA).

The security forces have also killed children during operations. In August, police shot dead Jemboy Baltazar, 17; witnesses alleged the police claimed Baltazar had illegal drugs to justify the shooting. Also in August, a police officer shot dead John Frances Ompad, also 17.

Attacks on Activists, Unionists, and Journalists

Incidents of “red-tagging” by the authorities and government supporters and pro-government media continued. Getting red-tagged is often a prelude to physical attack, raising fears among activists and constricting democratic space. Government actors have red-tagged activists, unionists, environment defenders, Indigenous leaders, teachers, students, and journalists.

In May, the hosts of a pro-government TV program accused the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and its chair, Jonathan de Santos, of working with communist insurgents. In June, several activists and environmental defenders in the northern Philippines sought protection from the Supreme Court after they were red-tagged by the military and the police. Some victims of red-tagging are bringing lawsuits in response: In July, Carol Araullo, a longtime leftist activist, sued the hosts of a pro-government TV show for red-tagging her and her family. In September, her son, journalist Atom Araullo, also brought a case.

In some cases, the red-tagging has turned into “terrorist”-tagging, with the government using the country’s harsh and overbroad Anti-Terror Act to target civil society organizations, accusing them of terrorist financing. In September, the military filed a complaint against CERNET, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in the central Philippines, for allegedly providing funds to the New People’s Army, a charge the group denied.

The targeting of unions and labor activists was the focus of a high-level mission of the International Labour Organization in January. The mission denounced red-tagging and other forms of harassment against trade unionists. In April, President Marcos signed Executive Order 23, which promises protection to workers and respect for their right to organize.

There was some good news, however. Former senator Leila de Lima, a prominent political prisoner and staunch human rights activist, was released in November after a court granted her bail in the last drug case filed against her by the Duterte administration. She was arrested and detained nearly seven years ago on bogus drug charges. In September, a Manila court acquitted Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa of tax evasion charges, leaving two cases pending in courts against her and her colleagues.

Enforced Disappearances

Enforced disappearances remain a persistent human rights violation in the Philippines. Two infamous enforced disappearance cases—of peasant activist Jonas Burgos in 2007 and two University of the Philippines students, Karen Empeno and Sherlyn Cadapan, in 2006—remain unresolved.

In January, labor rights activists Dyan Gumanao and Armand Dayoha were abducted in broad daylight at a port in Cebu City. They surfaced a few days later and accused the police of kidnapping them and mistreating them.

In April, activists Gene Roz Jamil “Bazoo” de Jesus and Dexter Capuyan were allegedly abducted by government operatives in Taytay, just southeast of Manila. They remain missing.

In September, two environmental activists, Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano, went missing. The government later publicly presented them and claimed that they were NPA fighters who had surrendered. But the two activists, during a government-organized press conference, said that the military had abducted them.

Key International Actors

Despite ongoing serious abuses and the lack of accountability, the Philippines continue to benefit from the European Union’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+), which grants tariff preferences for exports to the EU market conditioned on the country’s compliance with 27 rights conventions.

In an April visit to Manila, EU Special Representative for Human Rights Eamon Gilmore highlighted shortcomings in the Philippines’ compliance with its GSP+ human rights obligations and stressed that “doing business with the EU means addressing human rights issues.” Members of the European Parliament also remained highly critical of the Philippines’ rights record and questioned its eligibility for the GSP+ program.

In August, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Manila and praised the Marcos administration for “improving” the human rights situation in the country. Von der Leyen announced the resumption of negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement, which had been frozen under Duterte due to human rights abuses. In November, the EU released a report on the human rights situation in the Philippines, as required under the GSP+ program, which highlighted major rights shortcomings and emphasized the need for progress.

The UN Joint Program (UNJP), created in 2020, has continued to build the capacity of accountability mechanisms in the country. Although it has trained law enforcement officers on proper methods to investigate rights abuses, particularly extrajudicial killings, the UNJP has had little impact because of the Covid-19 pandemic and initial lack of cooperation from the Philippine government.

The UNJP’s mandate will end in July 2024. If extended, the program needs monitoring and reporting mechanisms.

After eight years of negotiations, in April, the United States Biden administration signed an enhanced cooperation agreement with the Philippines to fund and provide rapid support to respond to humanitarian, climate, and “other shared challenges.” In October, the US and the Philippines held two weeks of military exercises amid rising tensions with China over the territory of the South China Sea.