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[Stories] Philippines: Interview with Filipino human rights defenders regarding the Supreme Court’s declaration that red-tagging is  a ‘threat to life, liberty, and security’

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The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) welcomes the Philippine Supreme Court’s declaration that ‘red-tagging, vilification, labelling, and guilt by association threaten a person’s right to life, liberty, or security’ and that these ‘may justify the issuance of a writ of amparo.’ 

The decision came on 8 May 2024, granting activist Siegfred Deduro’s writ of amparo and overturning a lower court’s 2023 decision dismissing a 2020 petition by Deduro. 

The case stemmed from Deduro alleging that during an Iloilo Provincial Peace and Order Council meeting, the Philippine military and anti-communist groups identified him as a  member of the New People’s Army–the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines–a claim later echoed by media outlets. Posters in Iloilo City depicted Deduro as a criminal and terrorist. Seeking protection, Deduro petitioned for a writ of amparo, which provides various remedies from the courts including protection orders. The Supreme Court ruled that the Trial Court that dismissed Deduro’s petition erred and violated due process.

Red-tagging of Filipino activists

Red-tagging refers to the act of labelling individuals, groups, or organisations as communists or terrorists, often without substantial evidence. In the Philippines, the phenomenon has been happening for decades and has since evolved into a harmful tactic for suppressing dissent. 

During the Duterte administration, particularly through the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), red-tagging has been exploited to target activists, human rights defenders (HRDs), and critics under the pretext of combating insurgency.

Following her visit to the Philippines between January and February 2024, Irene Khan–the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression (UNSR on FOE)–observed that ‘red-tagging’ is practised by security forces as part of their counter-terrorism strategy. Khan emphasised that ‘it is also clear that such vilification is not only aimed at those who are actually associated with proscribed or listed organisations as some officials claim, it is also used to target legitimate activists and activities, sowing distrust between the State, communities and civil society.’

The Court’s recognition of this danger is a crucial step towards safeguarding human rights in the Philippines. This ruling reaffirms the importance of protecting individuals from baseless accusations and harassment, underscoring the judiciary’s role in upholding the rule of law and ensuring justice for all.

Interview with Cristina Palabay and Ephraim Cortez

FORUM-ASIA spoke with prominent Filipino HRDs Cristina ‘Tinay’ Palabay and Ephraim Cortez regarding their thoughts on the landmark ruling. 

Tinay is the secretary-general of Karapatan Alliance Philippines, a FORUM-ASIA member organisation dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights in the Philippines. Meanwhile, Ephraim is the president of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, which advances the  rights of the marginalised and oppressed.

What is the significance of this Supreme Court decision? How will it impact human rights organisations, faith-based groups, indigenous communities, and environmental groups in the Philippines?

Tinay: We view the recently published Supreme Court En Banc decision partially granting the writ of amparo of activist Siegfred Deduro as an important legal decision recognising the dangerous consequences of red-tagging, vilification, and labelling. 

These dangerous practices of State security forces have long threatened the lives, security, and liberty of scores of human rights activists, political dissenters, and ordinary Filipinos–many of them have been victims of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, illegal or arbitrary arrests and detention, and many other forms of grave human rights violations–which include human rights workers of KARAPATAN. 

Red-tagging, which precedes these acts, lays the pretext for these dire violations committed with impunity, as State forces make no distinction between civilians and combatants in its counter-insurgency campaign.

The Supreme Court decision reaffirms the embattled human rights defenders’ assertion that red-tagging causes real world harm and thus they should be accorded their right to legal protection and other forms of protection. It should prod the enactment of pending bills on the criminalisation of red-tagging and on the protection of HRDs. 

Ephraim: It is significant in the sense that there is a categorical ruling that red-tagging is a threat to life, liberty, and security. It recognises that red-tagging, in many cases, is a prelude to a physical attack, which requires protection from the Courts. 

With that ruling, it gave victims of red-tagging a course of action against red-taggers even in the absence of a law criminalising it. Classifying it as a threat is like saying that those engaged in red-tagging are committing a wrongdoing, which may be the subject of legal redress in addition to the entitlement of victims to the privilege of the writ of amparo.

The decision provides a legal basis to counter the narratives of red-taggers and that of the NTF-ELCAC and the security sector that what they are doing is ‘truth tagging.’ With sufficient proof, red-tagged members of these organisations may now seek protection from the Courts.  They may also use this decision to seek other legal redress against their red-taggers.

How did the recent visits of the UNSR on FOE and UNSR on Climate Change influence the Court’s decision? Can this be seen as a best practice on how international human rights standards can be domestically implemented?

Tinay: The reports and recommendations of High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and the UN Special Rapporteurs on climate change and human rights and on freedom of expression and opinion–all based from reports and recommendations of human rights organisations–were cited in the Supreme Court decision, thus these have a positive impact on the normative framework setting on domestic human rights law and jurisprudence. 

It is certainly an example of good practice on advocacy work of human rights organisations. UN bodies and judiciaries only move when civil society persists in our work.  

Ephraim: While it is not evident from the Decision, there is a possibility that these visits and statements by these special mechanisms, to a certain degree, influenced their deliberations on the case.

I can say that it is. First, it cited, with approval, the dissenting opinion of Justice Marvic Leonen in Zarate vs. Aquino III, where Justice Leonen, in his discussion on why red-tagging is a threat, in turn cited the Report of Philip Alston on vilification, which, according to Alston, is used as a justification to a subsequent physical attack.

The Decision also cited the portion of the Decision in Manalo, specifically in the definition of threat, where it (Manalo) cited decisions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the European Commission on Human Rights. Thus, in defining threat within the context of the writ of amparo, the Supreme Court used as reference decisions of international human rights bodies and by extension, the findings of UNSR Philip Alston.

These are indications that the Supreme Court consciously referred to international human rights standards.

What can the international community do to push President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to publicly endorse the Supreme Court decision, promptly adopt measures to end red-tagging, and demand accountability?

Tinay: The international community should call out the current administration for its deeds  that continue the policy and practice of red-tagging and other human rights and international humanitarian law violations on his watch through the NTF-ELCAC. 

Marcos Jr.’s denialism and hypocrisy of continuing pressing human rights issues and concerns on justice and accountability need to be called out. Otherwise, if the international community turns a blind eye on these misdeeds and adopts the propaganda lines of Marcos Jr., it will become complicit in these violations and will be accountable for dropping the ball on their human rights obligations. 

Ephraim: The international community should continue to exert efforts to pressure them to refrain, not only from using the practice of red-tagging, but also from committing other forms of human rights violations. 

Concretely, countries with trade relations with the Philippine Government should impose as a condition to trade agreements compliance with international human rights standards. And push for an independent investigation on the human rights violations committed by Philippine State forces.

What next after the Court decision? What message do you want to convey to your fellow HRDs and activists who have been ‘red-tagged’?

Tinay: We, human rights defenders and activists, should remain steadfast in upholding rights, freedoms, and justice because we are confident that we are standing on what is right and what is just. Let us utilise the Supreme Court decision in pursuing calls for justice and accountability and in our forms of pushback and resistance within and outside the halls of the judiciary. 

Ephraim: With this decision, there is now basis for a legal push back against the practice of red-tagging. This should also be explored to exact accountability. At the same time, this decision should be used to counter the prevailing narrative on red-tagging.