Date and time: May 30, 2023; 4:30-7:00 PM Manila
Attendees: 30 people from the Philippines, West Papua, India, Pakistan, and Burma.
Location: Zoom Meeting
Defend the Rural Defenders was successful in initiating a dialogue between frontline rural human rights defenders and communities from Burma, the Philippines, Bangsamoro, West Papua, and Palestine. Observers and participants from India and Pakistan also shared insights on the state of rural and IP HRDs in their respective countries.
Participants from Manipur were not able to participate and discuss as the Indian government cut off the internet in their area at the time.
The solidarity event heard discussions on challenges that communities and rural HRDs face in conflict areas of Burma, Bangsamoro, the Philippines, West Papua, and Palestine. Discussants shared the dire situation of IP and rural people living in conflict areas, especially in post-bombing and post-battle scenarios.
In both the panel and the round table, participants shared their experiences with monitoring, verifying, and responding to situations after bombings and conflicts. A part of the discussion also delved into the potential of monitoring human rights violations in organizing and alliance work. The discussion also highlighted the role of international solidarity among IP and rural peoples in advancing the cause of communities for just and lasting peace.
The discussion largely supported the organizers’ preliminary findings on unreported bombings and the silenced suffering of IP and rural peoples in conflict areas of Palestine, Burma, the Philippines, India, and Pakistan.
The participants affirmed the need for a solidarity initiative to uncover and expose these unreported bombings and rights violations. However, a unified framework for community-led monitoring was not discussed in depth due to time constraints.
Policy recommendations for the international community and multilateral bodies that have been discussed include sanctions on military aid and trade (arms, jet fuel, etc.), independent investigations, and review of mechanisms for redress.
IPMSDL opened the event with an acknowledgement of the participants and their organizations. He discussed the flow and the objectives of the event.
APRN opened the event with a keynote address on the initiative’s preliminary findings, discussing the policy implications of rising and underreported aerial bombardments, the rise of drone strikes in civil wars, and the spread of militarism around the world.
She discussed how these atrocities fly in the face of the current development agenda and play a key role in the failure of the SDGs. She reiterated that only by addressing these barriers to justice, including gaps in monitoring and reporting of HRVs, will the world have a chance of advancing towards a sustainable future.
Gaza Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture Platform (GUPAP), discussed the extent of their organization’s work and the situation of rural people living in Gaza.
Alla said that the increase in aerial bombardments in Gaza and elsewhere in Palestine has left farmers unable to access their livelihoods, leading to a scarcity of fresh and other food commodities in local markets. Additionally, access to the sea for fishing was suspended for five consecutive days, affecting more than 4,400 fishermen.
To help women entrepreneurs restore their small and micro enterprises and food sovereignty in Palestine, GUPAP is implementing a community-led solidarity marketing campaign. Cuba pioneered this method, opening up a plethora of new sales channels for female-owned businesses and domestic goods.
But because of the siege and attacks, women entrepreneurs now have less access to markets and work in harsh and dangerous situations in the Gaza Strip and Palestine.
Moro-Christian Peoples Alliance discussed the continuing atrocities Moro people face in Bangsamoro, Mindanao, five years after the joint US and Philippine troops leveled Marawi City via a five-month bombardment.
She historicized the Marawi siege of 2017, where the Philippine government used aerial bombardment to allegedly stop a small number of armed men who identified themselves as belonging to the ISIS group. This five-month bombardment resulted in the displacement of 400,000 residents of Marawi City alone and 450,000 evacuees.
She said the government has not prioritized the rehabilitation of their houses and residents and has not prioritized the rehabilitation of some of the destroyed infrastructure, such as roads and the Grand Mosque, the Masjid. The contract for their free stay in those temporary shelters will end this year, so they will be displaced again.
She said this is a common scenario in the Philippines, where the Philippine government labels all armed groups and struggles in the country as terrorists. This practice, known as “red tagging” or “terror tagging,” has been linked to the US counterinsurgency guide and the US-led War on Terror. She says this has resulted in the attack and arrest of unarmed people, from suspected sympathizers to members of activist groups.
She says that the US and other countries have been using a variety of weapons for military air strikes in the Philippines, including live ammunition and drones for reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, and directing where the bombs should be. This has caused civilian casualties in some areas, such as Marawi, and among other peasant and indigenous peoples.
She lamented that all this is happening despite the presence of peace agreements like the Comprehensive Agreement on the Respect for Human Rights and Human International Humanitarian Law, or CARHRIHL.
She notes that the organizers and participants need to organize a larger movement against aerial bombardment and that there is a need for a wake-up call in the international community. She says they hope to gather people like them to create international instruments that prohibit these atrocities.
Karen Human Rights Group discussed the situation of Karen people living under the military junta’s brutal attacks since the coup in 2021. In his presentation, he details a recent airstrike on May 23 and proceeds to report on the impact of these airstrikes in the last two years.
He said the air strikes have caused at least 90 injuries and 29 deaths, including women and children, and have targeted civilians. This includes the destruction of clinics, schools, hospitals, and religious buildings, such as 12 religious buildings, three clinics, five schools, and more than 50 houses.
He details that there have been over 200 times of ground shelling in the current states since 2021 to 2022, costing 162 injuries and 47 deaths, and 69 times of shelling from January to May 2023, costing 39 injuries and 17 deaths.
More than a hundred homes and the materials used to construct them were also destroyed in 2023, along with eleven churches. The ongoing indiscriminate shelling and airstrike, as well as local communities’ security and livelihood issues, have also restricted freedom of movement.
According to KHRG, it is extremely dangerous for HRDs to access areas where heavy military conflict is taking place, making community documentation and monitoring a hazardous endeavor. There is also an added layer of difficulty in communication as the junta has cut down the internet connection in many of these areas.
To address this, KHRG proposed that the international community call the support coordinator and implement targeted sanctions against the junta, especially on gas and fuel, engage with neighboring countries for the passage of aid to Burma, and increase financial support to local organizations. He also said there’s a need to ensure the safe passage of refugees and encourage cross-border organizations to develop support for the displaced.
Finally, he calls for multilateral bodies to investigate and hold the military junta accountable for their crimes.
West Papua Support Network discussed the brutal military regime in West Papua and the policies that endanger the West Papuans. West Papua has been under military occupation since the 1960s, and Indonesia has used UN mechanisms and protocols to block international avenues. Since Indonesia’s occupation, an estimated half a million West Papuans have died, disappeared, or were never born.
He said that the indigenous population of West Papua constitutes 2.3 million out of almost five million. He explained that many of West Papua’s prominent activists are being targeted by intelligence operatives because of the region’s special laws protecting their rights to free speech, assembly, and the expression of political views. He also said that media operations have also faced similar difficulties.
He explained that their colonial subjugation was tagged as a civil war, making it difficult for them to access mechanisms that are reserved for trying international crimes.
He also narrated new laws in place that hinder their right to organize and seek accountability, including an ID law. He said that their network is making an effort to obtain and verify independent data, which helps galvanize support through solidarity work and engagement in various mechanisms.
He said that there is a need to strengthen and ensure the safety of human rights defenders, particularly the indigenous Customary Council, to continue their work in monitoring, reporting, and defending against violations in West Papua.
Two representatives from the United Nations Refugee Council have arrived in New Guinea to assess the situation of refugees fleeing violence in West Papua, the Central Highlands, and Papua New Guinea. The local indigenous communities in West Papua, the Central Highlands, and Papua New Guinea are using this information to rebuild their lives after being uprooted from their homes for five or more years.
Finally, he emphasizes the importance of consolidating efforts and supporting communities and indigenous people on the ground. They strongly believe in solidarity and are eager to support other liberation struggles for a common agenda for just and lasting peace.
Danggayan CV and Magsasaka delivered a message on human rights violations in rural areas in the Philippines.
She mentioned in the discussion that 10 separate incidents of indiscriminate military operations conducted by the Philippine armed forces were documented in 2022. She said that these airstrikes and operations were allegedly targeting New People’s Army rebels, but they were unsuccessful. Instead, these military operations have caused harm to civilians and rural communities.
In November 2021, activists and farmers from the provinces of Cagayan and Isabela travel to the National Capital Region (NCR) to draw attention to the problems facing their communities, which include the heavy militarization of civilian areas and aerial bombings. The 5th Infantry Brigade and the Tactical Operation Group of the Philippine Air Force conducted a bombing raid earlier this year.
Food aid from the social welfare department was not only lacking but had failed to reach the communities because of military checkpoints. Farmers also said that the AFP controls their freedom of movement in these areas, barring them from going to their upland farms. She said that in numerous cases where rural HRDs were trying to access these areas, they were barred by the military, including the most recent in Baggao, Cagayan.
She said the Marcos Junior government and the Philippine Armed Forces should stop the indiscriminate bombing and aerial attack immediately, and the Marcos Junior government should formally enter peace negotiations with the NDFP to address the root causes of armed conflict.
PCFS facilitated the roundtable discussion, summarizing the panel discussion, which showed the huge uptick in attacks on rural HRDs, escalating aerial strikes and bombings, and the lack of legal redress for justice in conflict areas.
Participants from India and Pakistan discussed the similar features of civil wars and occupations happening in Assam, Balochistan, and Jammu and Kashmir. The discussion then proceeds to delve into the critical role of monitoring and reporting these atrocities at the national and international levels.
This was followed by an in-depth discussion on building local alliances for monitoring HRVs and advocating for justice in cases of aerial bombings.
A West Papua delegate said that one of the key challenges for people living in conflict areas is isolation, especially for refugees. Without solidarity, he said, they are barred from accessing justice mechanisms or are just invisible to the public.
He said that this is most stark in West Papua, as it is a subjugated colony that has no access to humanitarian bodies like the Red Cross or even INGOs like Amnesty International. To address this, he suggested providing refugees with training in human rights reporting or international media data collection methods. He said that it’s important to build solidarity among people struggling for self-determination and liberation.
The Palestine delegate also shared that the key to monitoring violations and reporting them is working with the community. She said that promoting resilience and local development at all times helps in enabling communities to stand on their own and aids in making them owners of these campaigns, especially women. When communities are involved in other campaigns for their community, they’re more engaged in exposing atrocities that attack these developments.
She said their campaign in urban farming and agricultural advisory services includes more people, especially mobilizing women, children, the disabled, and refugees to engage them in building markets and camps.
The RTD also tackled the best practices the organizations are currently employing in their monitoring and reporting work in these areas.
The Bangsamoro delegate discussed that getting information in conflict areas is often constrained, and they sometimes rely on multiple sources to get information. This includes mobilizing allies in the church and the government, monitoring military websites, and even social media. She also notes that these monitoring efforts also have the potential to create big alliances among human rights groups by exposing the issues to their communities.
She recalls the campaigns against extrajudicial killings and exposing Duterte’s war on drugs, where they got to work with other human rights organizations. She also said that it’s important to ally themselves with other IP and rural HRDs working in conflict areas. This is also pivotal in campaigns that need multilateral pressure, like their campaign to demand that the US government stop sending military aid to the Philippines.
She notes that a robust solidarity movement in the international community can help deter attacks on communities, and that is something more valuable for communities.
Delegates from Burma also shared their practices for monitoring HRVs in conflict areas, which are centered on direct community engagement, as this is the most accurate way to do it. They highlighted that swift documentation helps encourage humanitarian response and ensure accuracy in reporting.
They also noted that collaborating with relevant stakeholders is crucial to reaching places where documentation is risky. Through their network, they share experiences and maintain close connections with the community. They also provide training and tools to the community to help support their efforts in documenting and advocating for justice. They reiterated that engagement with the community is the best way to mobilize for monitoring, verification, and reporting.
Both delegates from Burma and Bangsamoro discussed the importance of verifying data from the ground and ensuring that this information is used for campaigns and advocacy.
PCFS, closed the session with a summary of unity and called for greater solidarity among IP and rural people’s movements for their collective rights and rights to self-determination and liberation.
Defend the Rural Defenders is a closed-door meeting between rural human rights defenders and communities in conflict areas. It aimed to start a dialogue of solidarity among rural and indigenous peoples movements working in conflict areas on the trends and challenges in monitoring and advocating for justice in post-bombing and post-battle scenarios.
The event was co-organized by the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS), the Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN), the Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL), and Tanggol Magsasaka (TM).
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