‘OUTDATED, OUT OF TOUCH’: UN rapporteur pushes NTF-ELCAC’S abolition

UN Special Rapporteur Irene Khan. (AFP)

By Francis Allan Angelo and Sean Rafio

UN Special Rapporteur Irene Khan wrapped up her 10-day visit to the Philippines with a call for the abolition of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), which has been heavily criticized for the “red-tagging” of government critics.

In a press conference on February 2, 2024, Khan said that the foundations of NTF-ELCAC’s creation, through then-President Rodrigo Duterte’s Executive Order No. 70, had changed already.

According to Khan, the NTF-ELCAC had not taken into consideration the peace negotiations sought by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s administration with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

“NTF-ELCAC was established about six years ago in a different context. It is outdated. It does not take into account the ongoing prospects of peace negotiations,” she said.

“I therefore recommend that the task force should be abolished, the abolition would not only address some of the most critical drivers of red-tagging, but it could also allow this administration to modernize peace-building approaches,” she added.

NTF-ELCAC has been repeatedly accused of red-tagging individuals.

Khan’s concerns include the vilification and red-tagging of human rights defenders, humanitarian workers, teachers, the youth, priests, health workers, and indigenous leaders, identifying the NTF-ELCAC and other state and military entities as culprits or instigators.

Most victims have blamed the NTF-ELCAC either as the “culprit or the instigator” while others have also pointed their fingers at state security officials, the military and “some media outlets linked to political figures,” Khan added.

According to Khan, the abolition will address critical drivers of red-tagging and allow the government to modernize its approach based on the changing political landscape.

“The abolition will allow for a more inclusive peace-making platform or platforms with the participation of women peacemakers and communities as a genuine whole of nation approach to peace,” she said.

She also advocated for the government “to adopt and expedite a law to protect human rights defenders and to modernize peace-building approaches to reflect the current political landscape.”

She suggested that the government should issue an executive order denouncing red-tagging and expedite legal processes to define it clearly.

Khan plans to submit her findings in an official report to the UN next year and will continue discussions with Philippine government officials on adopting her recommendations.

While acknowledging recent positive developments, such as the bail grant to former senator Leila de Lima and the acquittal of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa in her tax cases, Khan stressed that these are insufficient without deeper reforms and a commitment to accountability.

The government has responded by stating that Khan’s suggestions will be thoroughly evaluated and considered for implementation​​​​​​.

Apart from calling for the abolition of the NTF-ELCAC, Khan also made several key recommendations to the Philippine government:

-Legal definition of red-tagging by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR): She called on the CHR to expedite the process of legally defining red-tagging, emphasizing the need for clarity and legal parameters to prevent misuse and abuse of the term​​​.

-Government policy against red-tagging: Khan pointed out the absence of a government policy on red-tagging and called for the establishment of a policy to fight against it, similar to anti-corruption policies. This involves setting out very clear measures to prevent its use against innocent civilians​.

-Message from the top against red-tagging: She emphasized the importance of a strong message from the highest levels of government against red-tagging, highlighting that such a message could have a significant impact on the mindset and actions of state officials and the public​​​.

-Engagement and inclusivity in government initiatives: Khan’s recommendations also covered the need for the government to improve inclusivity by involving civil society organizations in its initiatives, recognizing the importance of strengthening media freedom and security​.

-Fundamental and sustained reforms for human rights: Lastly, she underscored that tackling deep-seated human rights problems in the Philippines requires more fundamental and sustained reforms, along with a clear commitment to accountability. This involves building on positive signals, like the granting of bail to political prisoners and the resumption of peace talks, with significant legal, policy, and institutional changes​.

WHAT RED-TAGGING?

By sticking to its argument that there is no such thing as red-tagging in the Philippine legal system, National Security Advisor Sec. Eduardo Año disagreed with Khan’s recommendations.

In a statement, Año said the abolition of the NTF-ELCAC will be ill-timed as efforts to end the insurgency are still unfinished.

“We are already at strategic victory in our campaign against the CPP-NPA-NDF and to turn back now will be counterproductive and would render moot the “whole of nation” approach that has been very successful in breaking the back of the CPP-NPA-NDF in the past 5 years. The fact remains that the Communists are not yet finished. There are still 11 weakened guerilla fronts across the country with some 1,500 armed regulars seeking to overthrow our democracy and the duly constituted government and wreaking havoc and terrorism in the countryside.”

Instead of abolition, Año said the NTF ELCAC intends to transition to an NTF-Unity Peace and Development “once all guerilla fronts have been dismantled – hopefully this year – the but not a day sooner.”

Año also averred that the NTF ELCAC does not encourage nor support “red-tagging.” He also highlighted that the Marcos Administration has not issued any law, rule, or policy instrument that implements “red tagging” or even uses the word “red-tagging.”

“The term has no basis and cannot be attributed to any current government policy, program or activity. It is not a policy of anybody or an instrumentality of government. There is also no legal and binding definition nor is it considered a crime under the laws of the Republic of the Philippines.”

For persons who are aggrieved by the task force’s action, Año said there are numerous legal ways to seek redress of their grievances.

“Instead of going to media, they can always go to court and file cases against those they consider responsible for libel, oral defamation or whatever cases that the NUPL, Karapatan, FLAG and their allied organizations can think of. They can also file administrative cases with the Ombudsman or the Civil Service Commission if the alleged offending party is a government official or employee.”

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