By Somini Sengupta* – The New York Times
UNITED NATIONS — Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is a tiny woman who’s used to standing up to power.
A lifelong rights activist who is now the United Nations special rapporteur for the rights of indigenous peoples, her job is to hold governments accountable for violations. For years, she has traveled the world to hear the grievances of indigenous people and press for their rights at the highest levels.
Each time, after a week or two on the road, she has returned home to the Philippines. Returned to her family, her friends, her beloved pine forests.
These days, though, Ms. Tauli-Corpuz is feeling rattled. The president of her country, Rodrigo Duterte, has included her on a list of suspected terrorists.
Fearing for her safety, she left home. For two months, the 65-year-old grandmother has been hopping from city to city with just one suitcase in tow. Hauling two, she says, would be too much.
She is not sure when she will return.
“Better to be safe than sorry” is how she put it in a recent interview at United Nations headquarters, chuckling at herself, which she does often, even when she is talking about ghoulish things.
“It’s so lonely to be out of the country,” she said. “You’re out of your family. You don’t have your community. I don’t see my grandkids. I have eight! All those things that make one happy are not there.”
The Philippine government insists that she is on the list because she is suspected of links to banned leftist groups. Ms. Tauli-Corpuz denies it. She says the move was retaliation for her criticism of the military over the forced displacement of indigenous people in Mindanao, a conflict-ridden region in the country’s south.
And so, in a cruel twist of fate, Ms. Tauli-Corpuz has come to embody the very problem that she has been documenting as a special rapporteur: the criminalization of indigenous activists, particularly those defending their land. Indeed, that is the theme of her next report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, scheduled to be published in the summer.
“It affects her life, it puts her life at threat,” Myrna Cunningham Kain, a Nicaraguan who is also an advocate for indigenous peoples, said of Ms. Tauli-Corpuz, her friend of 30 years. “At the same time, it is a reminder of the situation that indigenous people face not only in her country, but in other countries when they defend their people and their communities.”
Global Witness, a watchdog group, in partnership with The Guardian, counted the killings of 197 environmental activists around the world in 2017, many of them indigenous people. According to the report, Brazil recorded the largest number of killings with 46, followed closely by the Philippines at 41.
Ms. Tauli-Corpuz grew up in the hills of the Cordillera region of Luzon, the country’s largest island. Her parents, she said, were among the first educated generation of the Kankanaey Igorot indigenous community. Her father became an Anglican priest; her mother, a nurse.
She was 16 when she joined protests against the Vietnam War on her university campus in Manila. American military bases in the Philippines were instrumental in that war. And the United States had a staunch ally in the Philippine president, Ferdinand Marcos, who declared martial law in 1972.
Ms. Tauli-Corpuz became a nurse, married an engineer, bore six children. All the while, her activism deepened. She organized protests against a proposed hydroelectric dam that would have inundated native villages. She campaigned against a logging concession, which also implicitly meant campaigning against martial law.
Martial law was lifted in 1981. But for Ms. Tauli-Corpuz, its memories are still fresh. Soldiers in ski masks knocking on her door in the middle of the night. Her two brothers and a sister detained. Extrajudicial killings. The press muzzled.
Those memories color how she sees her country now, and it worries her, she says: the return of extrajudicial killings, a concentration of power in the presidency, efforts to weaken the judiciary. “It totally reminds me of the past,” she said.
Ms. Tauli-Corpuz, appointed as a United Nations special rapporteur in 2014, has focused much of her energy lately on climate change.
Indigenous people bear some of its most immediate effects, she says, because they depend so much on the natural world. And yet they also bear the costs of many environmental protection efforts. Wind farms are proposed on their lands. They are evicted from forests because of conservation programs. Hydropower dams, seen in some quarters as a green alternative to fossil fuels, inundate their villages.
What galls her most is that native people aren’t often consulted, which is why she pushed for provisions to ensure that their consent is obtained for projects supported by the Green Climate Fund.
Athena Ballesteros, who advised the Philippine government’s climate negotiating team, described Ms. Tauli-Corpuz as one of the “fiercest leaders” representing a network of indigenous groups at the climate talks. “She brings climate justice to the table,” Ms. Ballesteros said.
Ms. Tauli-Corpuz fell afoul of Mr. Duterte shortly after issuing a statement on allegations of human rights abuses against native people in Mindanao. In late February, her name surfaced on a list of 600 people that the government wanted declared as terrorists because, it said, they were members of two groups: the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army.
It echoed a government list of people accused of involvement in the drug trade — chilling because so many drug suspects have turned up dead.
The Philippine mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for a comment. In recent statements, the government has insisted that Ms. Tauli-Corpuz was included on the list not because of what she said but because she has been linked to banned groups, a claim Ms. Tauli-Corpuz denies.
No legal summons has been issued for her arrest. In any event, lawyers for the United Nations have told the Philippines that she has diplomatic immunity.
Her predicament has set off sharp diplomatic exchanges. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, assailed what he called Mr. Duterte’s “attacks” on human rights activists and recommended for him a “psychiatric examination.”
The Philippines foreign minister called those comments “irresponsible and disrespectful.” China, one of Manila’s key allies, shot back, too: A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing urged Mr. Hussein to respect the “sovereignty” of the Philippines, according to news reports.
Ms. Tauli-Corpuz has yet to meet Mr. Duterte. She was supposed to, at the wedding of a family friend’s daughter. But the wedding was scheduled the weekend after the list was made public. She decided not to go. She said she didn’t want the bride’s family to suffer any consequences.
Ms. Tauli-Corpuz is barely 5 feet tall. For official meetings, she favors the traditional attire of the Kankanaey Igorot: a woven red button-down coat, a wraparound skirt held in place by a wide, fringed cloth belt. It’s easy to pack light, she jokes, when you know what to wear.
She walks quickly, toting a backpack on her shoulders that contains the lined leather notebook in which she records what indigenous people from all over the world come to tell her.
On a recent Wednesday at United Nations headquarters, during the annual forum dedicated to indigenous people’s issues, a delegation of Chakma people from Bangladesh brought her a list of killings and rapes that have gone unpunished. She took notes, shook her head, turned her lips downward in dismay. She told them she would ask government officials to explain the status of the thousands of land dispute claims that remain unresolved.
The last time a United Nations rapporteur faced the ire of his or her own government was 20 years ago, when Param Cumaraswamy, a Malaysian, was charged with libel in a court in his home country. The matter went to the International Court of Justice, which ruled that he was immune from prosecution. The United States wrote to the court in his support.
In the case of Ms. Tauli-Corpuz, the United States has said nothing publicly.
Nor has the head of the United Nations.
*Somini Sengupta covers international climate issues. She has reported from Congo, Liberia and other war-torn areas of West Africa, was the bureau chief in Dakar and New Delhi, and served as The Times’s United Nations correspondent.@SominiSengupta•FacebookAthena