Human Rights in the Philippines: A Brief History


Human Rights in the Philippines, or the absence of these rights, are better understood through the prism of colonialism. Over the last 400 years the Filipino people have suffered under first 330 years of Spanish colonialism and then a further 45 years of American rule.  Under Spanish colonialism, many nationalists were killed simply for advocating independence. The Spanish period was followed by a particularly brutal period of “pacification” when hundreds of thousands of Filipinos were killed resisting integration into the new American Empire.

Following “independence” from the United States in 1945, the Philippines served as a testing ground for counter-insurgency operation. Throughout the 1950s US advisors assisted the now independent Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) with counter-insurgency operations.

With the declaration of Martial Law in 1972, human rights violations were institutionalised as an integral element of the political control strategy of the Marcos dictatorship. Unlawful arrest, political detention and summary execution became standard practices for the AFP in their struggle against popular democratic forces.

The end of the Marcos dictatorship in the mid-1980s however did not put an end to human rights violations. Under Aquino, new political detainees again begin to fill the jails. In addition, military operation intensified creating tens of thousands of internal refugees throughout the country, in the late 1980s. On another ominous note, extra-judicial killing continued and leading activists were assassinated by military elements under the Aquino Presidency.

During successive regimes in the 1990’s human rights violations continued to be a problem but on a reduced level. This changed dramatically with the 1998 declaration of War against the Moro peoples in Mindanao-Sulu by the Estrada government. This launched another wave of internal refugees and witnessed massive violations of the rights of Moro peoples through arbitrary arrests, political detention, and extra-judicial killings.

These phenomenon have become more widespread since Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came to power. As the army pursues more vigorous counter-insurgency, human rights have become the first casualty (under the guise of the “war on terror”). Members of legal political organizations such as Bayan, Bayan Muna and the human rights group Karapatan have been targeted for arrest and in some instances summary execution.


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The Ontario Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines (OCHRP) is an activist human rights network of women, workers, church people, students and migrant Filipinos that promotes awareness of human rights issues concerning the Philippines and the situations of overseas workers from the Philippines in Canada.

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