Defend and Protect Civic Space, Empower the Marginalized

Defend and Protect Civic Space, Empower the Marginalized

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Council for People's Development and Governance started this petition to civil society organizations and

Civic space has started to close rapidly in the Philippines especially since 2018. Civil society organizations (CSOs) critical of the structural roots of poverty have been unjustifiably singled out by the Duterte administration and are among the worst hit.

This sets back our common cause of empowering communities and basic sectors, building democracy, and achieving the ambitious sustainable development goals (SDGs). It is going to become even more difficult to eradicate poverty and inequality, reverse climate change and environmental degradation, and promote peace and justice.

Civil society is used to getting on the bad side of those with political and economic power. This is inevitable when people’s organizations and development NGOs assert the right to development. The current targeting of CSOs with legal restrictions and extralegal pressure is however a different thing entirely.

The persecution of rights activists and groups is alarmingly systematic. The government has made lists of critical CSOs akin to military orders of battle. These include hundreds of people’s organizations and development NGOs. They span or otherwise serve the country’s most vulnerable sectors: farmers and landless rural workers, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, workers, urban poor, overseas Filipinos, women, children, youth and students, victims of disasters and calamities, and others.

The official backlash against progressive causes and social movements is disturbingly organized. Long-established CSOs working on social justice, human rights and community projects are disrupted or stopped. The State’s legal and regulatory mechanisms have been weaponized, and its security forces used coercively and violently.

Civil society is harassed. Registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and local authorities are made more difficult or revoked on flimsy reasons. Offices, homes, personnel and community projects are under surveillance. Organizational websites are subjected to online attacks and taken down.

Many development workers face arrest warrants on trumped-up charges. Offices have been raided and evidence planted to justify arrests. Human rights groups have monitored some 2,500 illegal arrests already.

The attacks however go far beyond such harassment. Civil society groups are falsely linked to terrorism to stigmatize them, delegitimize their work, and as a pretext for harsher attacks.

The accusations are spurious so there is no evidence much less enough to bring to court. Even so, the government actively maligns CSOs in mass media, social media, schools, communities, and even business circles nationwide. Security forces disinform with briefings to Congress, policymakers, local government units, the diplomatic community and development partners in the country and abroad. All this without even the pretense of due process.

Worst of all, some 270 land, environmental and human rights defenders have already been killed under the current administration, aside from over 400 frustrated attempts. Military and paramilitary forces are emboldened by official hostility to human rights, resurgent counterinsurgency operations, and the militarization of the bureaucracy.

These are part of a broader pattern of democratic backsliding and government pressure against perceived political opponents not just in civil society but also in the legislature, judiciary, mass media, churches, and private sector. Harmful counter-terrorism and other security legislation or regulations are being pushed.

These have placed the Philippines on the global front-lines of growing autocratic rule – it is among 111 countries, or some six out of ten countries worldwide, where civic space is rapidly closing or already closed. Yet, for that same reason, Philippine civil society is on the global front-lines fighting populist demagoguery and authoritarianism.

As space for civil society shrinks rapidly, we call on the public and all development stakeholders to defend the right of civic activists and the people to keep working for a just and humane society free of poverty and oppression. Reforms are needed to protect civic spaces not close these, and to empower the poor and marginalized not silence them.

Our voices also join those of hundreds of CSOs from over 60 countries endorsing the Belgrade Call to Action launched in April 2019. Global civil society calls to stand together to defend peoples’ voices for a just and sustainable world, to reverse the closing and shrinking space for civil society, and to stop increasing attacks on human rights defenders and the undermining of democratic participation.

164 have signed. Let’s get to 200!