Washington, D.C. — A human rights tribunal opened with a series of witnesses describing killings, abductions and cases of torture allegedly carried out by Philippine security forces and paramilitary groups operating with impunity under President Aquino III.
The International People’s Tribunal, a three-day event that opened Thursday, is meant to pressure the Filipino and US governments to end the “climate of impunity” in the Philippines by exposing human rights violations.
One of the most poignant testimonies came from Lilia Devero, a farmer who told the tribunal that paramilitaries had abducted her husband, killed three members of her family, and burned down her home and those of family members. Her video testimony, recorded in the Philippines in her native tongue, was screened at the tribunal and translated into English.
In her testimony, Lilia said she fled her hometown on Negros Island after a group of about ten armed men raided her farmhouse in July 2011 and kidnapped her husband, Jully Devero. Two other local farmers — Gerald Abale and Michael Celeste — were also kidnapped, according to the human rights group Karapatan. The three men, who were reportedly targeted because they were suspected as members of the New People’s Army (NPA), an armed rebel group, haven’t been seen since.
The kidnappers are suspected of being members of the Revolutionary Proletarian Army-Alex Boncayao Brigade (RPA-ABB), a group that splintered away from the NPA in the 1990s and reportedly works with the Philippine military in its counter-insurgency program. Activists have blasted that program, known as Oplan Bayanihan, as a cover for the violent repression of social movements, done with the complicity of the Philippine and US governments.
Lilia told the tribunal that members of the group also killed her uncle, cousin and an older sibling. “They want to silence the whole family,” she said.
After spending three years in hiding, she returned home to farm the land, despite warnings from neighbours that she could be the next victim. “I don’t care if they’re going to kill me,” she told the tribunal. “I want justice.”
Her house had meanwhile been targeted in an arson allegedly committed by the same paramilitaries, who also allegedly attempted to rape her daughter. The emotional testimony was just one of the most striking on the first day of the tribunal.
The cases are being heard by an international panel of jurors that includes human rights scholars, ministers and social justice activists. They plan to deliver their verdict on Saturday.
The accused include the governments of the Philippines and the United States, along with organizations such as the World Bank and various multinational corporations and banks operating in the Philippines. Organizers said the US and Philippine governments were informed about the proceedings but declined to send legal representatives.
The outcome of the tribunal won’t be legally binding but is meant to exert moral and political pressure on the governments. According to the Philippine news agency Bulatlat, three international tribunals on human rights in the Philippines have taken place, with former presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo both being found guilty, the latter twice.