Philippines one of 5 countries where land rights defenders frequently killed – report

The Philippines is one of five countries where land rights defenders are most frequently killed, according to the annual report released Tuesday by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OBS).
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MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is one of five countries where land rights defenders are most frequently killed, according to the annual report released Tuesday by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OBS).

OBS is a joint program created by the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organisation against Torture.

The report, We Are Not Afraid – Land Rights Defenders: Attacked for Confronting Unbridled Development, identified the Philippines, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras as the countries where murders and extrajudicial killings of land rights defenders are most prevalent. Honduras, whose candidate for the Miss World pageant was killed last month, is known for having the world’s highest homicide rate.

Farmers’ organization leader Moises Fuentes of Maramag, Bukidnon, was one of the victims of such killings. Head of Kuya Christian Farmers’ Association, he and his colleagues struggled to recover their land, which had been leased in 1986 to a company represented by former Bukidnon Governor Timoteo Ocaya. The land was partly redistributed to the farmers in 2010 by the Department of Agrarian Reform, said OBS.

However, Fuentes was unable to enjoy the small success for long as he was fatally shot in plain view of his wife in their home on June 16, 2012.

OBS said that a few months before the murder, a local radio station reported a hitlist containing the names of leaders of farmers’ groups, such as the Kuya Christian Farmers’ Association.

“(T)here is an urgent need to recognize the particular vulnerability of land rights defenders… and then to develop an agenda that ensures that they are better protected and empowered to carry out their activities in an enabling environment,” said OBS.

It documented 43 murders in Asia since its study in 2011, as well as an increasing number of harassment incidents against land rights defenders. Aside from the killings, the incidents included threats, violence, enforced disappearances, smear campaigns, illegal surveillance, judicial harassment, and arbitrary detention.

Since 2007, the scramble to secure land for large-scale investments has accelerated, leading to “massive human rights violations and agrarian disputes in many countries,” according to OBS.

It was the role of land rights defenders to “promote and protect land-related human rights” by standing up against “attempts to grab land” by mounting legal actions, public campaigns, protests, and demonstrations, said OBS.

The defenders served as the voice of victims of human rights violations and watchdogs against the further deterioration of land-related human rights issues. They also ensured that companies respected human rights when implementing their projects in the communities.

OBS said land rights defenders were vulnerable to harassment because they challenged “important economic interests pushed by powerful actors such as States and corporations,” and they usually operated “in remote areas in which the rule of law is weak and the access to protection mechanisms is difficult.”

Land rights defenders in the Philippines are also at risk, especially those in “violent-conflict and post-violent-conflict zones,” as they could be “wrongly identified as belonging to guerilla or other opposition groups.”

Authorities and politicians were rarely on the side of land rights defenders, said OBS, as the former usually favored “economic actors… at the expense of the rights of their own populations.”

Out of the 106 cases of harassment targeting 282 land rights defenders and 19 nongovernmental organizations that the OBS documented from January 2011 to August this year, over 95 percent of the cases remain unresolved. 

OBS lamented the governments’ “failure to hold perpetrators to account, either by their action or their negligence.”

“(I)n many instances, judicial institutions have not adequately investigated, prosecuted, and sanctioned perpetrators… the capacity and independence of judiciary systems should be strengthened. Effective steps against judicial bias towards marginal groups and minority populations should be equally addressed,” OBS said. 

They called on governments to establish mechanisms dedicated to the protection of human rights defenders; investigate cases of violations against land rights defenders; bring perpetrators to justices and ensure compensation and reparation; and ensure that corporations respected human rights and enable prosecution against violators.

“Land issues can be contested but an inviolable space in which the right of land rights defenders to act is to be preserved,” OBS said.

On the part of land rights defenders, OBS encouraged them to use social media to gather support for their advocacy, make violations public, and protect themselves.

OBS said that land rights defenders should be closely linked to media and national institutions dealing with human rights so that they would be protected from harassment. They also recommended partnering with nationwide human rights organizations, foreign embassies, and “international organizations that may have influence on the situation” to provide visibility to their work.