Critical voices of civil society organisations suppressed in the Philippines

Civil society organisations in the Philippines are suspicious of the intent of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 that the Philippine congress passed this year. President Duterte’s administration has insidiously made it difficult for civil society organisations to engage and influence the country’s development. Only a few months after this law passed, ACT Alliance member National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) has reported increased harassment incidences from the military in the conduct of their work with the communities since they have been red-tagged or identified as a communist organization in a presentation made by the Department of National Defense to the Philippine congress last year. 

The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) was established in 1963 and is the largest group of mainline Protestant and non-Roman Catholic churches in the Philippines. Aside from ACT Alliance, NCCP is also a member the World Council of Churches and the Christian Conference of Asia, and represents close to twelve million protestant adherents. NCCP members serve the communities by providing emergency assistance to disaster-stricken families and communities, assistance to small community-based projects, solidarity support (financial, material, technical assistance) to workers on strike, displaced urban and rural poor, and families of victims of human rights violations. NCCP is a strong advocate for human rights and environmental protection as part of their core mission. In 2017, the Philippine Faith-Based Organisations Forum (FBO PH) was formed by NCCP together with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-NASSA/Caritas Philippines and the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches-Philippine Relief and Development Services, Inc. FBO PH forms the largest network of Christian churches and institutions in the Philippines. 

Delays in humanitarian aid

Since the Anti-terrorism Act was passed, NCCP and their members have been subjected to malicious propaganda and different forms of harassment by the government. NCCP has long been working with the communities in the Philippines through their member churches that are rooted in these communities. Last year, NCCP was one among a number of humanitarian and service-oriented organizations in the list of “front organizations of local communist terrorist groups” presented by the Philippine Department of National Defense in a congressional hearing.

NCCP decried the baseless and unfounded inclusion of its name. “Such red-tagging by the state may delay, impede, or even prevent the delivery of much-needed services to marginalized communities especially in the midst of disasters. Organizations like the NCCP should all the more be encouraged and supported especially in a context where human rights are attacked, and fear and insecurity constantly loom”, NCCP wrote in a resolution. Further, the General Convention of the NCCP approved to seek a dialogue with the Department of National Defense and/or other appropriate government bodies to resolve this matter. The ACT-member responded to the threat immediately. The campaign to stop the attacks on human rights defenders, including the church institutions and its people, gathered huge local and international support.

Impact on COVID-19 Responses

In March 2020, the Philippines implemented a strict lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19. Until now there are different forms of curfews and quarantine measures in place in the country, varying by region and set by the Local Governmental Units. Intercity and inter-province travel is restricted, and domestic air travel remains limited.

Check points have been setup in several places where Filipinos require to have a pre-approved pass to be able to travel from one point to another. These checkpoints and passes have slowed down NCCP’s COVID-19 response. Despite that, they reached more than 3,167 families providing them food and cash assistance – particularly people who had the difficulty to travel even to the markets, with the restrictions in place. Yet in these check points, NCCP and their church members’ staff and volunteers were questioned and harassed, often their intention to visit and support vulnerable groups become a point of suspicion. 

While lockdowns are in effect, the Philippine government passed the Anti-Terrorism Act that would further restrict access to humanitarian assistance and movement of aid workers. This further compromised the civil society action, particularly those implementing humanitarian response: churches, service-oriented groups, and humanitarian organizations impartially helping those who are most vulnerable and marginalized even more.

“Chilling effect” on humanitarian work instead of support

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet at the end of June 2020 formally presented her office’s report on the situation in the Philippines to the UN Human Rights Council during its 44th session, stating that “The law could have a further chilling effect on human rights and humanitarian work, hindering support to vulnerable and marginalized communities”.

Solidarity among faith-based organisations

NCCP issued a statement on Saturday, 3rd July 2020. ”It is a travesty against God’s will as the Anti-Terrorism Act gives the government, or even just a few persons in the Anti-terrorism Council, the absolute power that determines what course people’s lives will take by putting forward a very vague definition of terrorism”, it declared, and continued that the measure will “insidiously” strip away respect for human rights and was likely to be “misused and abused” by those who wish to “lord it over” the people, obliterate opposition, and quell even the most legitimate dissent. “This bill will cause a further shrinking of democratic space and weakening of public discourse that will be detrimental to our nation”, the statement says. The Philippine FBO Forum bringing together constituencies from the Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical churches showed solidarity though issuing statement of support to NCCP and released opposition to the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 as it poses threat to the civil and political rights, including the right to freedom of religion and to exercise ministry in furtherance of religious beliefs.

ACT Alliance’s support

In September 2020, amid continued violence in the Philippines, international church groups and human rights organisations demanded for an independent, impartial investigation into atrocities that characterize President Duterte’s administration. An “International Ecumenical Convocation on the Defense of Human Rights in the Philippines” was carried out on 17th September 2020, with ACT Alliance as one of the sponsors. In a “Unity Statement for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights in the Philippines”, the church leaders affirmed support for Filipinos who are enduring a “deteriorating situation of civil liberties and human rights”. It is signed by ACT Alliance as well as many of its member organisations and international ecumenical partners.


Photo Paul Jeffrey