Cristina Palabay: “I experience death and rape threats on a daily basis”

Clara Zid, January 2021

Cristina Palabay, Secretary General of Karapatan, Philippines.

“I receive death and rape threats from suspected government agents. At times, I experience physical surveillance from individuals in civilian clothes or onboard of motorcycles in places where I go”. Cristina Palabay is the Secretary General of Karapatan , a national alliance of human rights organizations and individuals working for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines.

Cristina has many stories to be told, full of stress and sleepless nights: “Together with six of my colleagues, I am facing judicial harassment from the government’s National Security Adviser, after we filed a court petition asking for legal protection on threats to our lives, security and liberty”. Additionally, Cristina is facing a warrant of arrest, which was issued against her when she was in Geneva doing advocacy work at the UN Human Rights Council. Fortunately, she was able to return back safely to the Philippines weeks after, and has now posted bail.

The worst situation Cristina has faced is the times when she has learned that a fellow human rights worker has been killed. “In the past four years, 13 Karapatan human rights workers have been killed. None of the 13 cases has been solved, not even prosecuted. The latest of the victims, Zara Alvarez, who was also a very dear friend of mine, was killed in August 2020. I am still in grief over her death”, Cristina says. She adds: “While I experience death and rape threats on a daily basis, surveillance and judicial harassment, what hits me is when good, kind people are felled by those in power. I feel grief, sadness, and rage all at the same time”.

A modern version of Marco’s dictatorship

Karapatan’s founders and members have been at the forefront of the human rights struggle in the Philippines since the time of Marcos’ martial law regime. Cristina thinks that this moment, under President Rodrigo Duterte, can be paralleled to the years of Marcos dictatorship: “We are currently experiencing an epidemic of human rights violations with extrajudicial killings, illegal or arbitrary arrests, red-tagging of organizations, and other serious threats instigated and driven by State forces”.

“We are fast descending towards an authoritarian state”

Political dissents are being criminalized, tagged as terrorists or other labels. The consequences of this situation are that, according to Cristina Palabay, “civic and democratic spaces are shrinking at an alarmingly fast rate, with freedom of thought and expression, press freedom, right to association and assembly, and other civil liberties taking hit upon hit. We are fast descending towards an authoritarian state”.

Rodrigo Duterte has labeled human rights organizations, like Karapatan, as “organizations of demons” and more derogatory names. This only proves, according to Cristina, “his disdain for human rights principles and his propensity to incite violence and harm on those who expose his misdeeds”. She states: “He can call us with numerous names, but he can never make his crimes disappear, without him being held accountable by the people”.

The work of Karapatan

“Karapatan” is a Tagalog (a language mainly spoken in the Philippines) term that means “rights”. The organization was established in 1995 as a human rights alliance dedicated to uphold, protect and promote the rights of the oppressed and marginalized sectors in Philippine society. “It is meant to promote a human rights culture in the country, as we serve to monitor the State’s compliance to national and international human rights obligations”, Cristina says.

Karapatan has more than 40 member organizations and human rights workers from almost all administrative regions of the country, and no less than 200 full time volunteer human rights workers support the organization. Karapatan publishes public information, conducts advocacy campaigns, protests on human rights violations, and fights disinformation and fake news.

“We have filed complaints in local courts and before the Supreme Court, the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, Facebook Philippines, the Senate and House of Representatives, and recently at the Office of the Ombudsman. We also filed complaints and reports to UN special procedures, treaty bodies, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other international mechanisms”, explains the Secretary General of Karapatan.

The most successful campaign of Karapatan was the one where former general Jovito Palparan, also known as the Butcher, was held accountable for his crimes. The case is unique since a member of the State forces was held accountable for human rights violations. The Butcher was convicted for kidnapping and serious illegal detention of two female students in 2018. “It was a combination of national and international efforts, alongside the courage of the victims’ families and the witnesses in the said case”, she says.

Online defense

In early 2019, Karapatan suffered heavy Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. According to Cristina, “there had been prior attacks on social media accounts of Karapatan and on my personal account, where derogatory and pejorative language were used and threats were issued, but the DDoS attacks against our website have been the most serious attacks as they brought our website offline for a month“.

Since the migration of Karapatan to Qurium’s Secure Hosting infrastructure, the website has not suffered further attacks. “Qurium’s work in assisting embattled human rights defenders on their digital security issues is outstanding, and as we commend Qurium, we hope that there will be many other NGOs and institutions like them”, Cristina concludes.

Security protocols for physical security are being put in place”

Online attacks against Karapatan continue, but they differ in kind. “We suffer from red-tagging, and online death and rape threats on an almost daily basis”, says Cristina. They report these violations to social media companies and conduct digital security trainings among their human rights workers. They also conduct psycho-social debriefing sessions, which include tackling of online threats. “Other security protocols for physical security are also being put in place, alongside periodic risk and needs assessments”, she adds.

Why suffer the threats from all these adversities, why risk one’s life? – one can easily ask herself. Because of a dream, Cristina says: “I am aspiring for a just and humane society in the Philippines and anywhere else. I know it’s a big dream, but I will never stop longing and working for it. Even if I don’t see it in my lifetime, I hope that I will contribute to this change-making in my own way, for future generations”.

Gender based threats

Cristina Palabay is part of a generation of women who are fighting hard in the Philippines for human rights and freedom of expression, with Maria Ressa, co-founder of Rappler, being the internationally most known figure.

The threats that women receive are different from their male colleagues: “We experience additional forms of threats and attacks based on our gender”, Cristina explains. This gender-based violence, in addition to death threats and threats that endanger one’s life, liberty and security, have become normalized under Duterte’s administration. “I think this is the reason why there are more women in the frontlines of the struggle for rights”, she says.

Karapatan is hosted with since 2019.