Philippines: disappearance of Steve Abua (joint communication)

Photo credit: Surface Steve Abua

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of the Philippines on 3 February 2022. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, during which time the Government was expected to respond. I thank the Government for its response on 16 March 2022 providing additional details about the case.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication Read the Government's response

BACKGROUND

Topic: alleged enforced disappearance of human rights defender and peasant leader, Mr. Steve Abua.

Mr. Steve Abua is a peasant leader and human rights defender, who advocates for land rights and denounces human rights violations against peasant communities and national minorities, particularly the Aytas and Dumagats in Central Luzon. He held several capacity building seminars and training seminars to empower communities to know their rights and actively campaign for them.

Mr. Abua had been involved in reaching out to members of peasant communities and other organisations in the area of Bataan and Pampanga, regarding their alleged membership of the New People’s Army (NPA), and their forced surrendering from the NPA to the army. This is reportedly in accordance with a program of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), created by President Mr. Rodrigo Duterte under Executive Order No. 70 (2018), which serves “to institutionalize the whole-of-nation approach to end the alleged insurgency by the end of his term in 2022, by strengthening the counter- insurgency programme with a comprehensive socio-economic development component.” The stated aim of the NTF-ELCAC is “inclusive and sustainable peace and economic vitality in hundreds of communities still vulnerable to, or under the grip of, the NPA’s influence.”

ALLEGATIONS

Mr. Abua had been reaching out and offering support to members of peasant communities and other organisations in the area throughout 2021, following the reportedly forced surrendering of these communities to the army, due to their alleged involvement in the NPA. Such forced surrendering is reportedly in accordance with a program of the NTF-ELCAC, under Executive Order No. 70 (2018). On 8 March and 9 June 2021, members of organisations in Bagac and Hermosa, Bataan were allegedly forced to surrender to the army. Mr. Abua was reportedly last seen on 6 November 2021.

The following day, persons associated with Mr. Abua received a video call via Facebook, showing Mr. Abua blindfolded and handcuffed. The callers reportedly told them that if they went to the authorities, they would never see Mr. Abua again. The caller also reportedly told them to help them convince Mr. Abua to cooperate with the Government. There is reason to believe that the callers are from State forces, as they allegedly repeatedly mentioned Mr. Abua’s cooperation with the Government in text messages and further calls, following the initial call on 7 November 2021. The callers allegedly accused Mr. Abua of being an NPA member and claimed to be trying to help return Mr. Abua to the so-called “fold of the law” (“magbagong buhay”).

The persons associated with Mr. Abua reported Mr. Abua’s disappearance to the authorities and were accompanied by a local organisation on 9 and 10 November 2021 to the areas where Mr. Abua was reportedly last seen and where he could have been brought by potential captors. Unfortunately, they were not able to locate Mr. Abua and were reportedly followed by an unknown vehicle throughout their search. The individuals in the vehicles also allegedly approached the persons that had been questioned about Mr. Abua’s whereabouts by those associated with him and the local organisation.

The persons associated with Mr. Abua then filed an official missing persons’ report at the Lubao Municipal Police Station and Dinalupihan Municipal Police Station. The Lubao Municipal Police Station has allegedly been contacting the persons associated with Mr. Abua, asking for their personal details such as their address and Government issued ID. However, there has been no update regarding the investigation into Mr. Abua’s alleged enforced disappearance or the steps that might have been undertaken to search for him and establish his fate and whereabouts.

On 22 and 23 November 2021, persons associated with Mr. Abua and the local organisation went to several military and police camps, detention facilities and hospitals in search of Mr. Abua. The personnel at said institutions reportedly denied having Mr. Abua in their custody. Although the institutions were issued a petition regarding “the presence or absence and/or information on the whereabouts of such disappeared person,” which is required under Section 8 of Republic Act No. 10353, otherwise known as the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012, the personnel refused to show the petitioners all the facilities inside the military camps, police stations and offices.

On 22 November 2021, persons associated with Mr. Abua and the local organisation sought the assistance of the Commission on Human Rights Regional Office 3 in San Fernando City, Pampanga. The persons associated with Mr. Abua submitted a Complaint-Affidavit stating the circumstances of Mr. Abua’s enforced disappearance and their communications with his alleged captors.

On 7 December 2021, persons associated with Mr. Abua filed a Writ of Habeas Corpus at the Court of Appeals of Manila. On 17 December 2021, the Court issued a preliminary citation ordering the respondents, who are several Philippine army and air force officials, to show cause why the Writ should not be issued.

CONCERNS

In the communication, we expressed serious concern in response to the continued allegations of arrests and enforced disappearances of human rights defenders in the Philippines. We are seriously concerned by the information which would indicate that Mr. Abua has been targeted in response to his legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression, as well as the right to freedom of association.

We are also deeply concerned regarding the implementation of NTF-ELCAC, created through Executive Order No. 70 (2018), and its effect on human rights defenders, members of civil society and civil society organisations, through associating them as alleged fronts of CPP-NPA, which have been declared as “terrorists” by President Mr. Rodrigo Duterte. Labelling individuals and groups belonging to the civil society sector as terrorists has been a persistent and powerful threat to civil society and freedom of expression in the Philippines.3 In this connection, we are concerned that Mr. Abua’s disappearance may be related to his alleged membership to groups designated as “terrorists” by the authorities of the Philippines Government.

Concerns regarding the implementation of the NTF-ELCAC have been raised by civil society, due to the alleged use of the policy to justify threats and intimidation of individuals, including human rights defenders, and organisations striving for the improvement of human rights and the welfare of marginalized, disadvantaged and vulnerable sectors of the Philippine society. Concerns regarding the implementation of Executive Order No. 70 have also been raised in the Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in the Philippines (A/HRC/44/22) concerning “mobilizing the administration.

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