Karapatan: DFA, DILG regulations on CSOs to further constrict civic spaces in PH

Regulating the funding of non-government and civil society organizations and requiring them to secure clearances from State security forces to participate in dialogues with local government units “would only serve to further constrict the already narrowed civic and democratic spaces we have left in the Philippines and silence civil society voices and dissent,” human rights alliance Karapatan said on Thursday.

Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay stated that such directives from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA)’s Note Verbale No. 2021-0592 as well as the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG)’s Memorandum Circular No. 2021-012 “brazenly infringe upon constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms as well as international human rights instruments and declarations.”

“The DFA’s note verbale to regulate the funding of NGOs against terrorist financing and the DILG’s memo for CSOs to be cleared from ‘subversive’ activities would only target organizations — especially human rights groups like ours — critical of the Duterte administration’s anti-people policies by red-tagging us as ‘supporters’ or ‘legal fronts’ of ‘communist terrorists.’ These issuances only give the government the arbitrary power to designate which and which is not a ‘legitimate’ organization, giving it the power to deny organizations of their right to resources and to effective access to participation in the government,” Palabay continued.

In the DILG’s Memorandum Circular No. 2021-012 dated January 28, 2021, CSOs, to determine their “legitimacy,” are “required to secure clearances from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and the Philippine National Police (PNP), respectively” indicating that they are “cleared from any illegal and subversive activities” in order for them to be accredited to join a local “People’s Council” of CSOs.

Meanwhile, the DFA’s Note Verbale No. 2021-0592 dated February 5, 2021 notifies all diplomatic missions to the Philippines that all foreign funding intended for Philippine NGOs shall be “coursed” through the agency “for appropriate clearance.” To this date, the DFA has yet to issue the guidelines for the implementation of the note verbale. Nonetheless, in a February 24, 2021 tweet, DFA Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. stated that the note verbale “doesn’t affect legit NGOs” for “it is how a responsible government monitors where money comes from and goes to in the face of insurgent and terrorist-secessionist threats” and therefore “it should encourage funding from the well-meaning to know their generosity is not misdirected to evil.”

Such actions, the Palabay said, contravenes provisions of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders which, in Article 8, states that “[e]veryone has the right, individually and in association with others, to have effective access, on a nondiscriminatory basis, to participation in the government of his or her country and in the conduct of public affairs.” Article 13 of the declaration also states that “[e]veryone has the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilize resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means.”

“Moreover, such measures regulating the funding and accreditation of CSOs constitute undue State interference on a person’s right to freedom of association and produce a chilling effect — if not directly encroach — upon the right to free expression, free speech, to peaceably assemble and to seek redress of grievances guaranteed in the 1987 Constitution as well as the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights,” she stated, adding that the freezing of the assets and bank accounts of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines through false accusations of terrorist financing “already demonstrates the malignant intent of these measures and their implications on the deteriorating state of human rights in the country.”

“These issuances from the DFA and the DILG are part and parcel of the ‘whole-of-nation’ counterinsurgency approach of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, whose intent is to discredit, vilify, threaten, and target legitimate organizations who are standing in defense of people’s rights and civil liberties amid the Duterte administration’s crackdown on dissent. These policies would not only constrict civic spaces in the Philippines: they aim to impose State control over the civic space under the guise of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism — effectively cementing Duterte’s dictatorial delusions. We call on all freedom-loving Filipinos and human rights advocates to condemn and resist these measures, and to defend our civic and democratic spaces against tyranny,” Palabay ended.