In September 2017, Sheerah Escudero’s world came crashing down. Her beloved younger brother Ephraim had been missing for five days and the Escudero family was growing increasingly desperate. Then the call came: His body had been found lying by an empty road more than 100 kilometres away in Angeles City, in Pampanga province in the Philippines, northwest of Manila. Ephraim had been shot in the head, his body wrapped in packing tape.
The 18-year-old had been a recreational drug user but as far as his family knew, hadn’t used in a few years. Yet the father of two had still become ensnared in the increasingly brutal drug war of President Rodrigo Duterte, whose government has been killing suspected drug users and “drug pushers” since 2016. Duterte recently announced he was ramping up his efforts.
Sheerah and her family tried to identify those responsible for Ephraim’s death. They reported his disappearance immediately to police. Local police departments have refused to release any information or leads. Witnesses have told Sheerah that Ephraim was picked up by two men on a motorcycle, a common killing tactic now known as “riding in tandem.” CCTV footage confirmed this.
Sheerah, a diminutive woman in her early 20s with a bright smile, bears the trauma of her brother’s death with stoicism. Her Facebook page is a mix of joyful pictures with friends at coffee shops, juxtaposed with photos of her brother’s bloodied body lying in the street.
His death made the impact of the drug war personal in the most visceral sense — a brother lost, a father taken too soon.
Human rights workers targeted
We met Sheerah in late April 2018, during a trip to the Philippines to investigate the deteriorating human rights situation in the country — part of a broader research project at the International Human Rights Program, University of Toronto Faculty of Law, to understand Canada’s role in the region.
Our conversations with more than 50 human rights defenders, environmental activists, lawyers, artists and Indigenous groups revealed troubling patterns in a country that’s increasingly closing its borders to outsiders.
Sheerah’s story is all too common. The Duterte government’s brutal crackdown on drugs continues unabated. Duterte has publicly galvanized the Philippine National Police force to “slaughter them all,” proclaiming that we “can expect 20,000 to 30,000 more” deaths before the war is over.
As with any state directly targeting its own people, actual numbers are difficult to quantify, but Human Rights Watch estimates there are more than 12,000 dead. The body count rises daily; victims include children and young people like Sheerah’s brother Ephraim. Their deaths destroy families and the social fabric of communities.
Sheerah’s story shows the profound and far-reaching reverberations of state-induced violence. This violence takes many forms. For example, the regime has been explicitly targeting human rights advocates, placing many lawyers, NGO workers and environmental activists on a “suspected terrorist” hit list, which the government filed at a Manila Court in March 2018.
The lawyers and organizations we spoke with in metropolitan Manila all mentioned numerous colleagues who have been placed on this list, with some detained by the regime, while others have ominously disappeared.
Mining and degradation of the environment
The hit list has also created a climate of fear among environmental activists who have been advocating for agrarian reform, basic human rights for farmers, as well as highlighting environmental degradation as a result of extractive mining activities across the country.
During our time in rural Santa Cruz in the province of Zambales, we interviewed numerous environmental activists and farmers who spoke about the inaction of the government to address the tremendous environmental impacts of a neighbouring nickel mine.
The mine has destroyed rice paddies, polluted rivers and ocean water, killed livestock, and made it extremely difficult for farmers and fisherfolk to sustain their livelihoods.
The community’s incredible hospitality during our stay was contrasted by the stark poverty as a result of ongoing mining in the region. Many farmers and activists also expressed fatigue at having to deal with more researchers who ultimately do nothing to help their situation.
As one farmer told us: “I don’t want to talk to another Westerner ever again — nothing is changing. Your mines come in, our government sells away our lives, and we are left with nothing.”
While Canada is not operating a mine directly in Zambales, the deteriorating security situation at the time of our fieldwork did not allow us to visit Canadian mining sites as we had initally planned in the southern island of Mindadao, or the Oceana Gold mining facility in Didipio in central Luzon, which has already faced strong criticism by environmental groups in Canada.
Canadian mines also devastate the environment
However, the environmental impacts we observed in Santa Cruz are apparently similar to those at the Oceana Gold mine, according to representatives of the Didipio community as well as environmental activists in Manila who regularly monitor Canadian mines.
In Mindanao, thousands have been displaced by the mining activity and the counter-insurgency war, including numerous Indigenous peoples, who are often also directly targeted and murdered by the Duterte government for speaking out.
According to an Indigenous Lumad chieftain, Datu Lala: “Mindanao is now so militarized that we cannot breathe. We have to get out — otherwise we will be killed.”
The chieftain and his community have been seeking sanctuary in Manila for the last few months after a number of their family members, including children, were killed. Communities such as the Lumad are increasingly afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal, and environmental activists do not want to become the next target.
The Duterte government has also undermined fundamental democratic institutions and the independent judiciary, removing Maria Lourdes Sereno, the chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, and publicly attacking the Commission on Human Rights, an independent and constitutionally mandated body that monitors and investigates human rights in the Philippines.
Duterte doesn’t stop with his own people.
His administration has also been sealing its borders to international observers, and he’s barred foreigners like the Italian politician Giacomo Filibeck and a delegation from entering the country in April.
Even religious missionaries are not immune. During our time in the Philippines, Duterte ordered the expulsion of 76-year-old Australian nun Sister Patricia Fox, who has been living in the country for 20 years, for so-called “human rights activism.”
And the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the right of Indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, has been placed on the suspected terrorist list and is now afraid to return to the Philippines.
Our fieldwork was marred by this increasingly hostile environment. We were repeatedly told to keep a low profile, and our sources warned us that the government does not like foreign criticism.
Canada must do better
As two Canadian lawyers specializing in human rights law, we were profoundly disturbed by the discrepancy between this reality on the ground and Canada’s silence on the Philippines.
The International Criminal Court has initiated a preliminary investigation against Duterte himself, and the president retaliated by calling for a complete withdrawal from the court and threatening to arrest its chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, if she ever dared to set foot in the Philippines.
However, during our visit to the Canadian Embassy in Manila, a spokesperson emphasized Canada’s insistence on maintaining “friendly relations” with the Philippines.
It’s possible that Canada benefits from these friendly relations. We import labour from the Philippines through its many temporary foreign worker schemes. Perhaps calling out human rights abuses in the Philippines would not bode well for maintaining a steady stream of labour that bolsters the Canadian economy.
At the absolute minimum, however, Canada must critically re-examine its foreign aid policy and trade relations with the Philippines, such as the recently cancelled $300 million helicopter deal, which would have sent 16 combat-ready helicopters to the Philippine military were it not for backlash by the Canadian public and the media.
However, in April 2018, there were renewed discussions about the sale of the same helicopters, as well as an additional helicopter going directly to the Philippine National Police in June this year — the very same police force perpetrating the drug war murders.
It’s hard to reconcile Canada’s rhetoric of upholding international human rights with the suffering of people like Sheerah, who lost her only brother to the drug war.
Sheerah is particularly disturbed that “Duterte has made it OK to tell people that it is normal to kill, that people should die for using drugs instead of having access to treatment and rehabilitation.”
To deal with her trauma, Sheerah has become an activist and writer, volunteering with Rise Up, a network of organizations advocating against the drug-related killings.
Ephraim’s death continues to reverberate through her life in unexpected ways, acting as an “ice-cold” wakeup call, but one that also makes her life more dangerous. Keeping her brother’s memory alive makes her a target, she says, with a mix of quiet resignation and courage: “If this bloodshed continues, we are all potential victims here.”