The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michael Forst, urged the Philippine Government to launch a “full and independent” inquiry into the killings of three human rights defenders in Surigao del Sur on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

One of those killed was the director of the Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Development (ALCADEV), a school that provides education to children of the Lumad people, an indigenous group living in the mountainous Caraga region. The shooting occurred immediately after members of the regular Philippine Army and government-supported paramilitary forces occupied the school grounds, detained the director, and allegedly executed him in one of the classrooms. In their report, the Special Rapporteurs reiterated that “military occupation of civilian institutions and killing of civilians . . . are unacceptable, deplorable and contrary to international human rights and international human rights standards.” They noted that violence in schools, “which should remain safe havens for children,” is particularly egregious.

The Surigao del Sur territory has long been afflicted by armed conflicts between the government and indigenous groups—particularly the Moros and Lumad peoples—regarding issues of self-determination and land rights. Despite the fact that the Lumad peoples never formed a unifying revolutionary group, unlike the Moros, the government has stationed military and state-backed paramilitary forces in Lumad lands since May of this year. This occupation has increased tensions between the Lumads and the State, particularly with military forces interfering with the lives and livelihoods of the indigenous peoples by blocking access to farms and ancestral gravesites and conducted a string of civilian killings. Government actions in Surigao del Sur have compelled some 3,000 Lumads to evacuate to Tandag, the provincial capital, where they continue to stay in provisional shelters.

The Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997 is national legislation that promotes and protects the rights of indigenous peoples and their cultural communities. Section 13 of the Act recognizes the inherent right of self-governance and self-determination. Additionally, Section 14 of the Act explains that the State is required to continue to strengthen and support the various autonomous regions, which include the Lumad regions of Mindanao. In addition to these domestic obligations, the Philippines is a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 1 of the ICCPR ensures that all peoples have the right of self-determination; by virtue of that right, such peoples are free to determine their political status and to pursue their economic, social, and cultural development. This language mirrors Article 1 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which the Philippines has also ratified. The Philippines also voted in favor of, and ultimately helped pass the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007.

Amidst allegations that the military has been staging the Lumad killings, Philippine President Benigno Aquino publically assured citizens, in a nationally televised address, that there is no government-sponsored campaign to kill Lumads or any indigenous peoples in the region. Delegates from the Philippines announced at the Human Rights Council in Geneva last September that an internal, government-led investigation is underway. Additionally, in October of last year, the Philippine Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, in partnership with the Committee on Cultural Communities, held a two-day probe into the killings and evacuations within the southern province. Local officials, resident witnesses of the killings, members of the army, and members of government-affiliated militias attended the Senate inquiry. The Senate probe also included a visit to the refugee camp that now occupies the Tandang City Provincial sports complex to talk to the approximately 3,000 individuals who fled the killings in Surigao del Sur.

The Special Rapporteurs recognized and felt encouraged by the government’s announcement of an investigation at the Human Rights Council. Yet they also urged Philippine authorities to verify that independent investigators are not only identifying and bringing the perpetrators to justice, but also ensuring a safe return and proper redress for the indigenous peoples displaced by these events. The Rapporteurs expressed pressing concern about the increasing insecurity and ascent of unlawful killings in the region. In particular, Mr. Forst, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, called on the Philippine government to finally accept his requests to visit the country and assess the context in which human rights defenders operate in the Philippines.

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