Global Witness strongly condemns the criminalisation of four land and environmental activists as ‘terrorists’ in the Philippines
July 12, 2023
London, Wednesday 12th July – Global Witness strongly condemns the criminalisation of four leaders of environmental and Indigenous rights group Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA), who have been designated as ‘terrorist’ suspects by the Anti-Terrorism Council in the Philippines.
The four rights activists, Sarah Abellon-Alikes, Windel Bolinget, Jen Awingan and Stephen Tauli, are named only a month after a court threw out a rebellion case filed against them and several others for lack of evidence. The same judge also ordered that all warrants against the petitioners should be quashed.
Rachel Cox, Senior Campaigner at Global Witness, said:
“This recent government announcement appears to be part of a state sponsored pattern of ‘red tagging’ with the four defenders – vital members of the Philippines environmental movement - reporting years of harassment and state-backed smear campaigns aimed at undermining their work advocating for the rights of communities and Indigenous peoples in the Cordillera region.”
In the Philippines, the criminalisation of activists through a sinister tactic known as ‘red-tagging’ is often used to intimidate, defame, and vilify legitimate activists for their work. State apparatus like the Anti-Terror Law can be used as pretence for arrest and can compound the precarious situation of land and environmental defenders by legally formalising the practice – leading to further cases of harassment, intimidation, and attacks. This mirrors a trend of criminalisation of land rights and environmental activism not only in the Philippines but globally.
Jon Bonifacio, National Coordinator of Kalikasan Peoples Network, a network of environmental organisations that includes CPA, said:
“This resolution highlights the defectiveness of the Anti-Terror Law itself, which unfairly targets activists instead of addressing genuine acts of terrorism. The law’s overbroad definition of terrorism allows law enforcers to label environmental defenders as ‘terrorists,’ undermining their vital role in protecting the environment. It creates a chilling effect, stifling dissenting voices and hindering their efforts to safeguard natural resources and communities.”
For nearly four decades, the CPA has worked with communities in the Cordillera region to prevent environmental destruction by extractive industry projects and advocating for ancestral land rights. Through community mobilization, awareness campaigns and legal action, the CPA continues to challenge harmful projects and promote sustainable practices like organic farming.
Global Witness expresses its support for the CPA and is calling upon the Philippines government to urgently comply with human rights standards that protect fundamental freedoms, including ensuring human rights-compliant counter-terrorism legislation.
The government should guarantee the security of CPA staff and members and ensure that due process is followed in any and all judicial processes brought against rights activists in the country.
Global Witness is also calling on all foreign embassies present in the Philippines whose governments have committed to the UN Declaration of the Rights and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms” (commonly known as the “UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders” act in support at risk land and environmental defenders, and raise its concerns over the harassment and criminalisation of environmental organisations.
The Criminalisation of Land and Environmental Defenders
Criminalisation takes many different forms. At its simplest, it means creating, changing or re-interpreting laws so as to make once legitimate activities illegal, and turn those doing them into criminals. Legal threats can be used by governments and companies to intimidate defenders, tarnish their reputations and lock them into costly court battles which hamper their work. New laws can be created to restrict or criminalise protest and freedom of expression. And existing legislation designed to stop terrorists or protect national security can be twisted and used inappropriately against defenders.
These legal battles are generally heavily mismatched. Armies of well-paid lawyers often face off against farmers or Indigenous leaders of remote communities with far less capacity to defend their rights.
Once charged, defenders are stigmatised publicly, branded as terrorists or criminals by their government and the media it often controls. Ultimately, criminalisation is another way in which defenders and their families are abused and intimidated by the people and institutions that are meant to protect them.
Criminalising defenders in this way makes attacks on them seem legitimate, making them more likely. These trends continue across the globe, helped by populist politicians who are stripping away vital environmental protections.