case study

A UN Indigenous Rights Advocate is Not a Terrorist

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The Challenge

At the start of 2018, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, was one of several hundred people placed on a list of suspected terrorists by the government of the Philippines—for criticizing how the government’s economic development plans trampled the rights of indigenous communities. As the Philippines government has turned a blind eye to thousands of extra-legal killings since President Rodrigo Duterte took office, Ms. Tauli-Corpuz’s legal status was a direct threat to her personal safety and she had to flee the country.

Approach

Ms. Tauli-Corpuz, whose entire career has been dedicated to speaking out for the rights of disenfranchised communities in the Philippines and around the world, refused to be intimidated. Her initial pushback against the charges were captured in an opinion piece that Burness pitched successfully to the Financial Times. We then worked with a devoted group of advocates around the world who were pushing for justice—not just for Ms. Tauli-Corpuz, but for the several hundred other community leaders, advocates and lawyers who were added to the terrorist list without legal recourse.

Burness took advantage of her travel on fact-finding missions—she continued to meet with Indigenous communities throughout the world and also produced a report on the criminalization of indigenous advocates like her—to secure interviews with top-tier journalists to discuss the improprieties of this terrorist list.

Results

The coverage that resulted from this effort helped create the space for the broader coalition to push back on the trend in criminalization around the world. Towards the end of 2018, the Philippines government relented and removed her from the terrorist list. But other indigenous advocates remain on the Philippines list, and many more elsewhere continue to be threatened or even killed for their advocacy.

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