January 9, 2019
QUEZON CITY – Surreptitiously, without consultation with many non-profit organizations, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued SEC Memorandum Circular No. 15 (s. 2018) or the Guidelines for the Protection of SEC Registered Non-Profit Organizations (NPOs) From Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Abuse or the NPO Guidelines on November 7, 2018.
At first glance, the said memorandum seems like an innocuous set of guidelines to supposedly “protect non-profit organizations from money laundering and terrorist financing abuse.” However, considering the context of the worsening human rights situation, including the increasingly dangerous situation of human rights defenders, and the climate of impunity in the Philippines, SEC Memorandum Circular No. 15 merits deeper scrutiny.
As it is, human rights defenders face greater risks under the Duterte administration. Karapatan notes that at least 139 human rights defenders have been killed from July 2016 to November 2018. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst, in his World Report on the situation of human rights defenders, has noted that in the Philippines, the “government’s war on drugs has created a climate of insecurity and impunity for extrajudicial killings that affects human rights defenders.” Forst also observed that Duterte’s has fostered a “very harmful rhetoric against human rights defenders," labelling them as “anti-nation,” “protectors of drug lords,” “communists,” “terrorists,” among others.
Recently, a slew of such rhetoric has resulted in killings of farmworkers and a human rights lawyer in Negros, arbitrary arrests on trumped up charges of peace advocates, peasant organizers and leaders, harassment of human rights workers, and profiling and surveillance of teachers.
A closer look and analysis reveal that the latest set of guidelines by SEC is one that infringes on non-governmental organizations’ rights to organize and form associations, specifically on their freedom or capacity to freely conduct or perform their advocacies, as well as the right to privacy of the officers, members, clients or beneficiaries of any of those considered as non-profit organizations. This new memorandum is an extension of the mounting repressive policies insidiously implemented by the Duterte government in installments, so as not to betray its real intent of curbing all platforms for dissent.
With the said recent SEC Guidelines, the Commission is given unchecked discretion to determine and identify those whom it considers “NPOs at Risk.” No clear parameters have been stated, other than a very arbitrary classification of NPOs as “low risk,” “medium risk,” “high risk,” or “blacklisted.” Determination of which NPO will be classified as such also rests on information provided by government agencies such as the Philippine National Police. This renders progressive organizations at risk, particularly those openly red-tagged by the PNP and the Duterte government as “legal fronts.”
Through SEC Memorandum Circular No. 15, the SEC and government authorities are given unbridled power to compel disclosure of numerous information on non-government organizations, without a court order, including information on the location of beneficiaries or projects, areas of operation or activity, identities and locations of persons or entities who provide financial support for the NPO or are its intended beneficiaries. According to the guidelines, such information will be shared and made accessible to government agencies such as the PNP and the National Bureau of Investigation. With the express provision in the said memorandum on the SEC’s powers to enlist the aid, support and/or deputize any and all enforcement agencies of the government, civil or MILITARY, for the purpose of conducting investigations and information gathering, there is great danger that the SEC will be used for profiling, intelligence-gathering, surveillance, harassment and other possible grave violations against NGOs.
Through the said memorandum, the SEC is given control of all non-profit organizations in the country, as it is weaponized to infringe on the freedom and capacity of these organizations to freely conduct or perform their advocacies.
Karapatan thus calls for the scrapping or rescinding of SEC Memorandum Circular No. 15 as a measure that is directly inconsistent to the government’s duty to uphold the right to organize and privacy of all citizens, including the rights of human rights defenders against any form of interference or reprisal on their work. Such an arbitrary yet powerful memorandum will provide justification for a new form of witch-hunt, albeit still with the same targets. Such regulations will inevitably impede the work of human rights defenders, aid and development workers and other non-profit/non-government organizations and will surely result in the further constriction of civic space in the Philippines.