Killing of another human rights activist highlights climate of impunity in the Philippines

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, denounces the tragic killing of human rights activist Zara Alvarez. Her murder highlights a wider pattern of attacks against human rights defenders, journalists and critics that has increased under the Duterte administration, and the need for an international investigation into the crimes.

Human rights activist Zara Alvarez, aged 39, was gunned down along Sta Maria Street in Bacolod City on 17 August 2020. The police report said that Alvarez was shot dead by unidentified perpetrators. The activist had reportedly been receiving death threats for more than a year. She was the former campaign and education director and paralegal in Negros for human rights group Karapatan. Amid the pandemic, Zara Alvarez has been coordinating and conducting relief operations as part of a community health program.

“The cold-blooded murder of Zara Alvarez is a travesty and yet another addition to the growing list of activists who have been attacked and killed in the country with impunity. These tragedies have been exacerbated by the callous disregard for accountability and justice by the government. Authorities must take credible steps to investigate and hold the perpetrators to account,” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, CIVICUS Civic Space Research Lead

In a period of just two weeks, Zara Alvarez has become the second activist killed in the Philippines. On 10 August, activist and land rights defender Randall "Randy" Echanis, aged 72, was killed inside his own home in Quezon City. His body reportedly bore multiple stab and gunshot wounds. In recent months, Echanis had been active in opposing a new anti-terrorism bill, which the President signed into law in July 2020.

Both Alvarez and Echanis were among the more than 600 people that the Department of Justice wanted to declare as ‘terrorists’ in a case filed in February 2018. Their names were eventually removed from the list. Human rights groups have strongly criticised the practice of “red-tagging” – labelling individuals including human rights defenders as communists or terrorists – which has posed a serious threat to activists.

In June 2020, a strong report by the UN highlighted that the Philippines’ once-vibrant and open tradition of civil society activism is under serious threat. The report shows that violations of human rights, including extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detention, is pervasive in the country, and that vilification of dissent is being increasingly institutionalised and normalised in ways that will be very difficult to reverse. Rampant impunity means that accountability for attacks against activists and journalists is virtually non-existent.

Domestic mechanisms purported to prevent and address cases of impunity remain grossly inadequate. The growing number of human rights defenders murdered with no credible investigations bleakly illustrates a demonstrable lack of political will to protect human rights.

“The international community must do more to address the serious human rights violations in the Philippines. The complete failure of domestic mechanisms to provide justice means that the Human Rights Council in September must call for an independent international investigation mechanism into ongoing violations,” said Barreto.

In July, the Philippines was added to the CIVICUS Monitor watchlist due to a rapid decline in fundamental democratic freedoms in recent months. Press freedom has been under attack in recent months with ABS-CBN, the largest media network forced off the air, depriving citizens of critical information during the pandemic. The conviction of prominent journalist Maria Ressa of ‘cyberlibel’ has created a chilling effect among journalists.

Last month, the government passed a controversial new Anti-Terrorism Act, which would give law enforcement agencies broad surveillance powers and allow the police to arrest people without a warrant. There are concerns that the law has been designed to target critics of the government, not terrorists.

The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in the Philippines as “Obstructed”.

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