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International Relations

UN official fears for safety after Manila lists her as terrorist

Manila claims she belongs to insurgent group, hits out at 'disrespectful' UN

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, speaks at a news conference at U.N. headquarters on May 17, 2016.   © AP

JAKARTA -- Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a Philippine national and the UN's special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, said in a telephone interview that she is "concerned" about the Philippine government's attempt to list her and about 600 others as "terrorists."

The Justice Ministry's Feb. 21 court petition also said that Tauli-Corpuz is a member of the New People's Army, a communist militia which has fought a five-decade rural insurgency. "I totally reject that," she said.

President Rodrigo Duterte said after winning office in mid-2016 that he aimed to forge a peace deal with the NPA, with some of whose leaders he has long-standing personal ties. However, talks broke down in late 2017 and the government now wants the NPA listed as a terrorist group.

In February, Duterte said that soldiers encountering female NPA members should "shoot them in the vagina" -- the latest in a series of remarks that have provoked uproar among political opponents at home and in international organisations such as the UN, which has spoken out against the Philippine government's "war on drugs."

Since 2016, thousands of people have been killed as part of a state-sanctioned campaign against illegal drugs that critics say is rife with extrajudicial killings and impunity for the perpetrators.

Duterte won a landslide victory, partly thanks to his strident anti-drug rhetoric, and has long said the Philippines faces a narcotics trafficking and addiction crisis.

But Tauli-Corpuz fears "parallels" between the name-and-shame, trigger-happy tenor of the war on drugs and the publicizing of the government's list, which she worries could encourage would-be hitmen. "I have some protection as I am from the UN, but I and others need to improve security now," she said.

Discussing the allegations against Tauli-Corpuz in a March 9 press conference, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, provocatively suggested that Duterte should see a psychiatrist.

That proposal was in turn dismissed as "disrespectful" and "irresponsible" by Philippine Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano, who accused al-Hussein of overstepping his mandate and of insulting the Philippines.

Tauli-Corpuz believes she is being targeted because of her UN work defending the rights of minority indigenous groups around the world, including in the Philippines. She has received foreign support for her outspokenness about several unsolved murders of indigenous leaders involved in environmental or land issues in the Philippines.

"It's dangerous to be an environmental rights defender anywhere in the world these days, but especially in the Philippines," said Eva Kusuma Sundari, a parliamentarian from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or P-DIP, on Monday. The P-DIP is the biggest party in Indonesia's parliament and counts Indonesian President Joko Widodo among its members.

To prevent the kind of environmental damage that has alarmed activists, the Philippine government has put restrictions on some forms of mining. Duterte's administration remains popular among Philippine citizens, and it has big plans for the country's economy, seeking hefty Chinese investment in infrastructure, some of which could cut through areas where the NPA is active. If the government can proceed with its infrastructure plans as scheduled, economic growth could hit 7% this year, according to estimates published by Philippine banks.

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