Karapatan reasserts call to abolish NTF-ELCAC after three years of State terror, violence, and repression

For the past three years, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) “has only proven itself to be a weapon by President Rodrigo Duterte in his desperate bid to crush dissent and terrorize the Filipino people,” human rights alliance Karapatan said on Monday, as the group reasserted its call for the NTF-ELCAC’s abolition in a protest action outside Camp Aguinaldo to mark the task force’s three years of “State terror, violence, and repression.”

“Since its creation in 2018, the NTF-ELCAC has systematically engendered human rights violations and even war crimes in counterinsurgency operations. Far from its ‘mandate’ to end the decades-long armed conflict and bring about ‘inclusive and sustainable’ peace, the Duterte government has used the NTF-ELCAC to wage a war targeting human rights defenders, journalists, critics, and anyone who stands in the way of Duterte’s de facto martial law,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay stated.

On December 4, 2018, Duterte signed Executive Order No. 70, which created the NTF-ELCAC and institutionalized its “whole-of-nation” counterinsurgency approach to supposedly “address the root causes of insurgencies, internal disturbances and tensions, and other armed conflicts and threats” in order to attain “inclusive and sustainable peace.” The NTF-ELCAC and its “whole-of-nation” approach, however, has been criticized by various human rights groups and peace advocates.

Palabay averred that the NTF-ELCAC’s “whole-of-nation” strategy “operationally blurs military and civilian government functions — effectively militarizing the civilian bureaucracy — and this is reflected in the engagement of the NTF-ELCAC’s officials in red-tagging which deliberately makes no distinction between combatants and civilians in armed conflict. Red-tagging has proven to be deadly, and it has obstructed the exercise of constitutionally protected rights and freedoms.”

According to Karapatan’s documentation, 204 individuals have been extrajudicially killed in line with the government’s counterinsurgency campaigns since the NTF-ELCAC was established on December 4, 2018. Karapatan has also documented 111 cases of frustrated extrajudicial killings, 12 cases of enforced disappearances, 109 cases of torture, as well as 2,085 cases of forced and fake surrenders, which the NTF-ELCAC has paraded as victories in its counterinsurgency campaigns.

The Karapatan official further noted that “billions of taxpayer’s money and government resources are being used as military pork barrel as well as to reward human rights violations through the NTF-ELCAC and its so-called Barangay Development Program.” At least PHP 19.1 billion were allocated to the NTF-ELCAC this year. The bulk of its funds — PHP 16.4 billion — supposedly went to various projects in barangays allegedly “cleared” of “rebel influence” under the Barangay Development Program.

However, only 26 or 1% of the NTF-ELCAC’s 2,318 projects were reportedly completed this year. Furthermore, Karapatan’s documentation also showed that the regions which received the largest chunks of the funds for the Barangay Development Program — Davao, Caraga, Northern Mindanao, Western Visayas, and Soccsksargen — were also among the regions which tallied the highest number of extrajudicial killings and political arrests since the start of the Duterte administration.

From July 2016 to November 2021, 210 out of the 424 cases of extrajudicial killings transpired in the said regions while 238 out of the 489 political prisoners arrested under the Duterte administration were arrested in the same regions. Palabay asked: “Is this the way the NTF-ELCAC determines how barangays are ‘cleared’ — by the number of people murdered in fabricated armed encounters or illegally arrested and detained on planted evidence and trumped-up charges?”

The Senate has decided to significantly cut down the NTF-ELCAC’s proposed 2022 budget from PHP 28 billion to PHP 10.8 billion. While the Karapatan official lauded the Senate’s move to push through with defunding the NTF-ELCAC, PHP 10 billion is “still a huge sum of public funds which can possibly be used to curry favors and influence for the upcoming national elections in 2022.”

“By both mandate and framework, the NTF-ELCAC is setting fertile ground for corruption and violations of people’s rights — even to the point of virtually incentivizing them — that it doesn’t deserve even a single centavo from the nation’s coffers. The NTF-ELCAC should be abolished and its funds should be realigned for public health and basic social services. Furthermore, armed conflict can only be resolved by genuinely addressing its roots and striving for a lasting peace based on justice,” she ended.