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Abolish NTF-ELCAC – UN’s Khan

CLOSING TALK. United Nations Special Rapporteur Irene Khan (left) talks to Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin as she wraps up her 10-day visit to the country on Friday. Malacañang on Friday vowed to boost its efforts to balance the rights to association and expression with the fundamental right to life. PCO Photo
Rey E. Requejo, Macon Ramos-Araneta, Charles Dantes & Vince Lopez

NSC spox: Now’s not the time, agency may shift to peace mandate

Visiting United Nations Special Rapporteur Irene Khan on Friday called on the government to scrap the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) since the bases for its creation have already changed.

Khan also noted that freedom of expression has improved under the Marcos administration, as compared to the time of former President Rodrigo Duterte, but added that much can still be done.

In a press conference in Mandaluyong City, Khan, who serves as the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, also urgedthe government to adopt and expedite the passage of a law to protect human rights defenders.

“First of all, my concern is about red tagging which continues tohappen, and that of course, fingers have been pointed at them,” Khan said. “I am asking for (the NTF-ELCAC) abolition because I think its usefulness is outdated.”

“I think (the Marcos) administration has set a different tone, a more open approach. I think definitely, there has been change. But I think there are some more systemic problems that need to be dealt with, for example, impunity, addressing attacks on journalists… there were four killings as you know last year, and are still taking place.”

“The abolition will not only address some of the most critical drivers of red-tagging, but it will also allow this administration to modernize peace-building approaches based on this changing political landscape. The abolition will allow for a more inclusive peacemaking platform or platforms, with participation of women peacemakers and communities as a genuine whole-of-nation approach to peace,” she said.

National Security Council Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya said the NTF-ELCAC may transition into the National Task Force on Unity, Peace, and Development, but said now was not the time to abolish it.

At a press briefing at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City, Malaya said this plan was based on the observation that the New People’s Army (NPA) guerrilla fronts have weakened.

“The transition is prompted by two things: the first one is the strategic victory over the New People’s Army” and the resumption of peace talks with the communist rebels, he said.

Khan, who serves as the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, also urged the government to carry out other reforms related to free speech and freedom of the press.

“So, there is a willingness [on the part of the Philippine government]to engage with the UN, these are all positive signals, but they are not sufficient to turn the page decisively on the past,” Khan said.

“Tackling the grave and deep-seated human rights problems of the Philippines, many of which are related to my mandate, will require more fundamental and sustained reforms and also a clear commitment to accountability.”

Prior to Khan’s visit, UN Special Rapporteur Ian Fry, the first special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, also recommended the abolition of NTF-ELCAC last November.

Special rapporteurs are independent human rights experts working voluntarily to make reports on specific country situations or thematic issues. They make policy recommendations to nations they have visited, but they cannot coerce governments to apply these changes.

In a statement from the Presidential Communications Office, the Palace said Khan’s recommendation would undergo thorough evaluation and consideration for implementation.

“The UNSR’s initial report offered suggestions to enhance programs and mechanisms safeguarding human rights, with a focus on Freedom of Opinion and Expression,” the PCO said.

“While the government is open to reforms, it points out the difficulties in fully grasping the local nuances within a brief ten-day visit. Hence, further discussions and collaborative efforts between the government and the UNSR are planned,” the agency added.

According to the PCO, Khan had interactions with 24 government agencies, meetings with over ten members of the House of Representatives, and engagements with seven members of the Supreme Court during her stay.

The NTF-ELCAC has come under fire for red-tagging or linking activists, human rights workers, journalists and administration critics to the armed communist movement, a charge its officials have denied.

Khan’s press conference marked the end of her visit to the Philippines, where she held meetings with various concerned government officials and personalities to assess the country’s situation related to the protection of freedom of opinion and expression.

Earlier, Khan visited various government agencies and talked with officials such as Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin.

Among the government agencies she visited were the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior and LocalGovernment. Khan also visited civil society organizations and human rights activists.

Malaya said the task force would focus on areas weakened by the communist insurgency so that insurgencies would not happen again.

“Once the 11 remaining guerrilla fronts have been dismantled, then that will be the signal to transition into the National Task Force on Unity, Peace and Development,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III, on the other hand, said he supported the abolition of the NTF-ELCAC, adding that funds used by the agency are difficult to liquidate and audit.

The Presidential Task Force on Media Security said Khan and Bersamin had an hour-long discussion regarding the state of freedom of opinion and expression in the country.

Khan also had a dialogue with government agencies tackling various issues such as the killings of journalists in the country, the state of prisons, and judicial reforms.

On the last day of her 10-day visit, Khan urged the government to show tolerance to criticism and dissent if it really wants to live up to its value for democracy,

“As duty bearers, the state has to show tolerance,” she said.

“The whole concept of freedom of expression is to be able to say what you want, even if it offends the other side,” she said.

Khan made the statement even as she noted the cases of jailed journalists and activists in the country, including Frenchie Mae Cumpio.

She visited Cumpio, a journalist facing illegal possession of guns and explosives charges, in Tacloban City.

“Tolerance is a very important quality for the state in order to protect and uphold freedom of expression,” Khan said.

Khan also deplored the shutdown of ABS-CBN and the recent closure of CNN Philippines, saying they could limit the diversity in the media.

CNN Philippines stopped operations on Jan. 31 due to financial losses.

Although it was a business decision, Khan said it still showed a “very worrying sign” that the media sector is “a troubled sector.”

“Treating the media sector as a commercial sector alone is wrong,” she said.

“Media is a public good. It’s a public service, regardless of whether you’re for profit, nonprofit or independent, you are providing very important information to the public [and] allowing public debate,” she said.

Khan pointed out that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that the Philippine media is “free, independent, diverse and pluralistic,” but it must not also be run by the state.

“I’ve talked about the regulation of ownership, because what is happening in many countries, including in the Philippines, the powerful economic and political interests are coming in to buy media and that sometimes leads to a direct erosion of media freedom of editorial freedom,” she said.

Khan called on the government to ensure that the media sector is safe so the democracy will also get vibrant.

“Because without a vibrant, safe, diverse, pluralistic media, citizens suffer. People’s right to know is curtailed. And democracy suffers,” she said.

Altermidya Network, an alternative community of Filipino journalists and media workers, supported Khan’s recommendation to abolish the NTF-ELCAC. They also welcomed her initial findings during her 10-day visit to the Philippines.

“It should be noted that this is the second time a Special Rapporteur has recommended the abolition of NTF-ELCAC. However, we stress that Executive Order No. 70 passed in 2018, which created the said task force, should also be junked,” the network said in a statement.

Altermidya noted that these recommendations are not only simple policy changes but represent pleas for the restoration of a safe and enabling environment for journalists and human rights defenders.

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