VISITING United Nations special rapporteur on press freedom Irene Khan said she would recommend that the Philippine government abolish the interagency task force formed during the Duterte administration to quash the 52-year old communist insurgency.
But the National Security Council is hesitant at the idea of outright abolition of the National Task Force to End Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), saying that it has been the “game changer” in the county’s success in ending the communist rebellion.
Khan, the UN special rapporteur for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression and opinion, was in the country for an assessment on the state of freedom of the press and expression in the country.
During her trip for the past 10 days, she met with government officials, journalists, civil society leaders and legislators in Manila, Baguio and Cebu cities. She also visited the young activists Frenchie Mae Castro Cumpio, Mariel Alvez Domequil and Alexander Philip Dizon Abinguna who are detained in a Tacloban City jail in connection with their ties with the NPA.
”I must express grave concerns that civil society actors and many journalists face during my meetings. I heard again and again red-tagging,” Khan said.
Human rights activists complain that political activists, lawyers, trade unionists, journalists, humanitarian workers, teachers, priests, indigenous leaders and other groups who are perceived to be affiliated or sympathetic to the communist movement are being targeted as “Red” supporters.
“Many of the victims have pointed their finger at the state agency, NTF-ELCAC,” Khan said.
Khan said NTF-ELAC’s mandate is “outdated” and does not take into account the ongoing peace negotiation between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front – Communist Party of the Philippines.
“I therefore recommend that the task force should be abolished,” she added.
Jonathan Malaya, NSC assistant director general, said they consider Khan’s recommendation as “preliminary” because there was an agreement to provide her with more inputs and other documents for her consideration before she submits her final report to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
He confirmed red-tagging was one of the main issues raised during her visit.
“When we discussed the status of the NTF-ELCAC we assured her that we are open for reform and we assured her that given the new tone of the administration, there is opportunity here for transformation,” Malaya assured.
Malaya called the counter-insurgency campaign of the government as on its final push, with only 11 New People’s Army guerilla fronts and 1,500 armed rebels.
“We expect that the remaining guerilla fronts will be dismantled before the end of the year,” he revealed, attributing the success of the end of the insurgency to the “whole-of-nation” campaign of the NTF-ELCAC.
“Now that we have reached this stage in the campaign, we feel it is improper to call for its abolition…Now that we’re winning what signal does it send to the public and to the international community that the Philippines after 40,000 deaths attributed to the communist insurgency after trillions of dollars and pesos impact on the Philippine economy they are now calling for abolition of the NTF-ELCAC,” Malaya explained.
As soon as the NPA guerilla fronts are dismantled and peace talks between the Philippine government and the CPP-NPA-NDF resumes, NTF-ELAC will “transition” to the National Task Force for Unity Peace and Development, which will focus on peace and development.
Khan is a Bangladeshi lawyer who served as secretary general of Amnesty International and a consulting editor of a Bangladeshi newspaper.