Brian Campbell, Attorney, International Labor Rights Fund
In 2001, concern over the growing militancy of fringe terrorist Islamic groups in Southeast Asia, including the Abu Sayyef Group with an estimated 200 – 500 members in the extreme southern islands of the archipelago, prompted the Bush Administration to establish the Phillippines as a second front in the “War on Terror.” They began pumping millions of dollars into the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to aid counter terrorism operations against these groups in the South. Seizing this as an opportunity to solidify her hold on power in the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her generals expanded the AFP’s counter-terrorism operations to include all organizations that they alleged were linked to the Communist Party of the Philippines/New Peoples Army (NPA), an organization founded in 1969 that has been operating an insurgency against the Philippines government for over 37 years. Any group that openly opposes Arroyo’s political and economic agenda has been labeled a communist and a terrorist and the names of their members began appearing on the Order of Battle, the military’s list of people who, in their eyes, pose a threat to Arroyo’s leadership and policies. Among those groups were progressive Philippine trade unions, such as the KMU, to whom she was referring in 2002 when she called on the AFP and Philippine National Police (PNP) to “fight against . . . those who terrorize factories that create jobs.” Arroyo’s violent rhetoric marked an escalation in her efforts to eliminate, through violence, fear and intimidation, any opposition to her economic liberalization policies and constitutional reform efforts, which has put an end to land reform efforts and has been primarily benefiting the landowning economic elite in one of the world’s most inequitable economies.
Since 2001, sixty-four (64) union leaders, members, organizers, and informal workers have been summarily executed in the name of the “War on Terror.” An additional fifty two (52) union members have been abducted, many of whom are feared dead. Many of the victims were killed while participating in or organizing strikes against the companies for which they worked. Others were killed simply because they were community leaders seeking to help their neighbors. The KMU, among others, has been trying to use all domestic legal means available to stop the illegal killings of their friends and members and have filed numerous complaints before the Philippines Human Rights Commission, to no avail. Unable to find domestic help, the KMU has now turned to the international community in a desperate attempt to protect its members, which numbers over 300,000 Filipino citizens. This past month, the KMU, with the help of the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights and their attorney’s at the public interest law firm Pro-Labor Legal Assistance Center, filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization’s Committee on the Freedom of Association seeking relief from the rampant government-backed killings and disappearances, an end to complicity of foreign and domestic companies, like Nestle, who provide direct assistance to the AFP and PNP by housing military detachments on their premises, and an end to the constant clandestine government surveillance of their members, including their legal representatives.
The KMU’s claims are far reaching and disturbing. The complaint describes in detail the coordinated operations of the Arroyo government to eliminate unions in order to promote labor flexibilization reform, which is simply a way to eliminate job security and stability with unrenewable short-term labor contracts. Companies, some of whom produce consumer goods such as cereals and textiles, are designated “indispensable to the national interest,” making union activity at those companies impossible and, at times, illegal. These “indispensable” companies are indispensable only to the limited number of shareholders and government officials who benefit from them, not the Filipino people, who receive very little in benefits.
In July 2006, I attended a conference at the United States Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor for labor officers they were sending to various embassy posts around the world. One of the purposes of the conference was to discuss the primary obstacles facing the spread of democratic ideals and development of free, democratic institutions in countries around the world. In particular, the Department implored the labor and political officers to seek out ways to work more closely with unions, who are, in many instances, the only truly democratic, representative institutions in many countries. Unfortunately, in the case of the Philippines, this call has gone unheeded while the U.S. government has continued to financially support the military and police, who have been brazenly increasing their attacks on union and community leaders under the guise of the “War on Terror.” The response from the U.S. embassy in the Philippines underscores the indifference the U.S. government has displayed towards these killings, calling life in the Philippines “cheap” and laying blame for the killings on personal and business disputes and an internal purge of the NPA, despite clear evidence in many of the killings of official Philippine government involvement.
Before the Congress approves renewed funding in this year’s Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill (HR 5522) and grants the Philippines an additional $104 million in foreign aid, these killings must stop. Funding for the AFP in the Foreign Ops bill is set to increase by over $12 million dollars, despite the fact that the AFP has yet to answer for its role in the killings. U.S. taxpayers dollars must not be allowed to support campaign of terror against the Filipino people.