Murder of human and environmental rights lawyer in the Philippines

IUCN NL is horrified by the death of Atty. Juan Macababbad, who was killed last week by two unidentified gunmen. Macababbad was a public interest lawyer who defended the rights indigenous people and the rural poor in the Philippines and has worked with many of our partners in the Philippines.

Header photo: Atty. Juan Macababbad, human rights lawyer who was killed in front of his residence. Photo from the FB page of Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate

For years, Atty. Juan Macababbad served as a free lawyer for indigenous people and rural poor, mostly handling cases of land conflicts between indigenous people and corporations or landlords.

Macababbad was killed after walking his clients out of his house. Two unidentified gunmen shot him and he was declared dead on arrival at the hospital. According to the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), this is the 65th time that a lawyer has been killed under Rodrigo Duterte’s government.

Loss of justice

‘The killing of Macababbad means that indigenous people and the rural poor will have less access to justice and it makes them more vulnerable to manipulation of the legal process by corporations or even the state,’ says Antoinette Sprenger, senior expert environmental justice at IUCN NL.

‘Macababbad handled cases of land conflict that we see around the Philippines and in many other countries,’ Sprenger explains. When community leaders and other environmental defenders oppose mining, plantations and other damaging industries on their lands and ancestral domains, they face immense charges and often also violence. ‘For us and our partners in the Philippines, the killing of Macababbad is the terrible loss of a fellow human and environmental rights defender,’ says Sprenger.

Escalating violence

The killing of Macababbad fits within a shocking increase of violence against defenders since Duterte entered office. In a recent report, Global Witness found that at least 29 defenders were killed in the Philippines in 2020. ‘Worldwide, Global Witness found a record high of 227 lethal attacks, as states around the world used the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen their grip on citizens and close civic space,’ says Sprenger.

Improve safety

We support the plea for justice for Atty. Macababbad.  IUCN NL works to safeguard and support the work of environmental human rights defenders.  We do this through concrete interventions to improve the safety of environmental defenders, such as security training, actions and the documentation of evidence for criminal cases. IUCN NL also has an emergency fund to bring environmental defenders to safety in case of acute danger and to provide them with legal assistance.

An end to impunity

Currently, many of the murders of environmental defenders do not result in prosecution. ‘This impunity must end. That’s why we’re pleading with the EU for a binding UN Binding Treaty for business and human rights, which enforces that environmental defenders and their rights are respected,’ says Sprenger.

More information

Antoinette Sprenger
Senior Expert Environmental Justice