FROM DEFENDERS TO VICTIMS: The Plight of Human Rights Defenders in the Philippines Amidst Continuing Impunity[1]

(Paper presented by Atty. Edre U. Olalia, Secretary General of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) and Cristina E. Palabay, Spokesperson of Karapatan, at the Conference on Defending Human Rights Defenders  in London, 24 February 2012, organized by the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, Amnesty International UK and the European Association of Lawyers for Human Rights and Democracy.)

“We leave unmolested those who set fire to the house, and prosecute those who sound the alarm”, It is an apt description to the attacks against human rights defenders in the Philippines.

The government of former President Arroyo has gone from denial to outright gun threat against the messengers exposing systematic extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture and other horrible violations of human rights committed against activists, farmers, workers and members of people’s and mass organizations. This has been the case since we brought these issues out to the attention of the national and international community.

Being a human rights defender in a country fraught with a hideous human rights record means putting oneself in the line of fire.

Rights Lawyers are Not Insulated

Human rights lawyers were not spared from the repression. Our clients are the poor and oppressed, who resist exploitation and oppression and whose rights are trampled upon in a society controlled by the few elite and foreign interests.

Available data indicates that at least 27 lawyers were killed in the past decade. Eight of these were directly involved in human rights issues.

Among them was Juvy Magsino, counsel for progressive organizations who was vocal against military abuses and large-scale mining projects affecting the people. She was riddled with bullets while driving her car. Prior to her death, she had been openly threatened by the notorious General Jovito Palparan who is now in hiding after an arrest warrant has finally been issued against him for the disappearance of two university students.

Another is Felidito Dacut, counsel for progressive unions, urban poor and people’s organizations. He was shot by armed men while inside a public utility vehicle on his way to buy milk for his 3-year old daughter after he momentarily excused himself from a union meeting.

Still another is Gil Gojol, law professor and legal counsel of progressive party-list and peoples’ organizations.  He had just come from a court hearing when men shot at his vehicle.

And there is Concepcion Brizuela. the feisty yet motherly founding member of the NUPL. She was even interviewed by a foreign mission of judges and lawyers regarding the threat on her life before she was killed in the now infamous Maguindanao massacre, the cruel murders of an unprecedented number of journalists by political warlords closely affiliated with the former government.

During the same period, at least 42 lawyers who were involved in human rights issues  were subjected to different attacks. These lawyers and their families received death threats and were subjected to surveillance. Some were harassed, intimidated, labelled and placed in the military’s Order of Battle, their offices ransacked by armed men or their vehicles burned. A number have survived persistent assassination attempts like the Filipino premier people’s lawyer Romeo Capulong, who is even a UN judge ad litem.

Most of these incidents have not resulted in any real accountability for the perpetrators, much less were they effectively investigated, and have been reduced to “cold cases” after public attention has waned.

Under the present government of Benigno Aquino III, the vilification continues, particularly of human rights lawyers defending political prisoners. They are called “left-leaning,” or “communists”. Some are openly demonized in the media while others end up being the accused themselves.

Thus is the case of labor lawyer for progressive unions Remigio Saladero. He also represented alleged communist rebels. Together with leaders of mass organizations, he was slapped trumped-up charges for the non-bailable crime of multiple murder, another anomalous example of the practice of criminalization of alleged political acts.

He was imprisoned during the past government but the charges were dismissed.  The charges have been revived under the present government, and the issuance of totally groundless arrest warrants anytime remain a Damocles’ sword.

These incidents — consistent with the objectives of the counterinsurgency programs of the government – also victimized rights lawyers. Like their non-lawyer counterparts, they have been labeled as “enemies of the state”.

Rights Workers in the Direct Line of Fire

Karapatan’s members and volunteers have fallen prey to the continuing culture of impunity that has been bred for the longest time by official acts of commission or omission.

Even with a new government that promised  to pursue reforms in governance, the killings, disappearances and violations continue. Being a human rights defender still mean putting one’s life on the line. Under the previous government, Karapatan lost 34 human rights workers of its own in the course of their work.

Karapatan’s offices were raided, lobbed with explosives or burned to sow terror. Most of the offices were subjected to surveillance; with suspicious persons casing the offices and threatening their personnel with calls or text messages. Their personnel are stalked and harassed.

Karapatan has been subjected to vilification campaigns during the course of military operations. Labelled as communist fronts and tagged as ‘terrorist lovers,’ its members have been subjected to intimidation, illegal arrests and detention, torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

Karapatan volunteers have been slapped with fabricated charges, in order to instill fear and silence human rights defenders or prevent them from doing their work.  The practice of improvidently using generic designations (“John or Jane Does etc.”) in criminal charges and perfunctorily substituting later the real names of activist leaders wholesale without evidence aggravates the situation. This is on top of the application of subsisting repressive jurisprudence some dating back to the Marcos dictatorship that throws a monkey wrench to effective legal remedies.

Fabricated charges are packaged as common crimes to conveniently hide the political nature of their alleged acts, deny them bail, make the conviction for simulated evidence even easier, or even scoff at their noble work.

The cases of Karapatan leaders Benjaline Hernandez and Eden Marcellana were among the much-publicized cases of extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders under the past government. Hernandez was killed by military and paramilitary forces while leading a fact-finding mission on the problems of indigenous peoples.

Marcellana was killed by the roving band of General Palparan while conducting an investigation on reports of rights violations. She had been threatened and ridiculed by Palparan prior to her abduction and killing.

Frustrated at the flat tires of the wheels of justice in the local front, both cases were brought to the UN Human Rights Committee where the accountability of the Philippine government was established. The Philippine government has largely ignored and has not positively acted on the recommendations of the Committee. These cases, as with hundreds more, remain unresolved at the local front, with the local remedies proving to be ineffective. The perpetrators are left unpunished to go on with their unscrupulous ways and find new victims to terrorize.

The three are among the 1,206 victims of extrajudicial killings under the previous government, 153 of whom are women and 476 are human rights defenders. There were 206 victims of enforced disappearance, 31 of whom are women and 68 are human rights defenders.

The findings of Prof. Alston, then UN Special Rapporteur on summary, extrajudicial or arbitrary executions and his reports to the UN Human Rights Council directly attributed the extrajudicial killings and rights violations to the military and the Philippine government’s counterinsurgency program cynically called Operation Freedom Watch.

Present Government: Is it turning a Blind Eye or is it Complicit?

The new president came into power riding on the crest of promise for reforms. But since then, there has been no fundamental departure from the human rights policy, and neither is there any change in the basic socio-economic conditions that breed these human rights violations. While the numbers have not yet reached the horrendous frequency and levels during the previous government, the situation is still disturbing. There has been no let-up in the terror and violence especially against human rights defenders.

Italian priest Fausto Tentorio, or Father Pops as he was fondly called, was shot dead inside his church compound. As a missionary in the Philippines, Fr. Pops organized various groups which provided assistance to the indigenous peoples, specifically through the building of schools and providing scholarships to children, and his strong opposition to the intensifying mining activities in the region and militarization.

Fr. Pops is among the 37 human rights defenders who are victims of extrajudicial killings under the present Aquino government, with the total number of victims at 67 in the one and a half years of his presidency. There is approximately one killing per week. Three out of nine victims of enforced disappearances are human rights defenders. Most of them are farmers, indigenous peoples, workers and the urban poor who are defending their right to land, ancestral domain, livelihood, decent housing, jobs and other basic rights.

Since 1986, reports of media groups indicate that about 150 journalists have been killed, a significant number of which were directly related to their exposure of anomalies in governance at the community level.

Already, ten journalists have been killed under the present government, the most outrageous of which was the murder of radio commentator Gerry Ortega, an anti-mining advocate who was also critical of graft and corruption.

The infamous Maguindanao massacre of November 2009 resulted in the daylight carnage of about 32 media persons out of about 54 in their convoy. The case has been dragging and has been bogged down, as with most legal cases in the Philippines, by an inefficient and tedious legal procedure within a justice system that many view as slanted towards or taken advantage of by the political and economic elite.

There are hundreds more not so prominent human rights defenders that endured or labored, or still endure and labor. This has been made possible by an oppressive and exploitative economic system and milieu that is engendered by a political framework and legal system that unleashes repression, or at least turns a blind eye to it or presents almost insurmountable obstacles under already difficult and dangerous conditions.

There remains a marked passivity and even nonchalance on the part of the present government as a whole as it largely fails to measure up to its own rhetoric to run after human rights violators, let alone the most remorseless ones. It leaves the herculean tasks to the victims themselves or their relatives and human rights groups to search for justice. Worse, these perpetrators remain in the security forces, ever ready to pounce on new hapless victims.

Key Threats and Challenges

We can perhaps glean from this foregoing sketch some of the key threats and challenges to human rights defenders:

Threats to life and limb, including harassment and intimidation by state forces;
Violation of their civil and political rights and rights as human rights defenders;
3.   Baseless labelling, vilification and political persecution through the slapping of trumped-up charges;
4.   Ineffective or impractical local remedies as well as double standard and even bias of a political milieu, judicial framework and penal system that frustrate any serious effort at accountability and which contribute to and engender impunity; and
5. Counterinsurgency programs that cripple human, including the people’s right to be organized and freedom to peaceably assemble.

Responding to Defenders under Attack

It is important and helpful that a strategic, sustained and effective response be developed lest more human rights defenders be human rights victims themselves. We venture to suggest some:

1. The campaign and advocacy against impunity should be strengthened and expanded even more on the national and international fronts. Publicity must also be maximized in intergovernmental bodies, fora and international media. This shall not only raise public awareness but also help shape the policies and responses of government;

2. Sustained and dedicated organizing among human rights defenders is imperative in strengthening the campaign. Linkages and networking with international human rights organizations, lawyers groups, parliamentarians and policy-makers should be likewise established, developed and sustained at the national, bilateral and multilateral levels;

3. A centralized monitoring centre to receive and monitor cases of attacks against human rights defenders would be useful. These centers should be accompanied by Quick Response Teams which should be able to give an immediate and timely response;

4. Legal assistance should be provided for human rights defenders or their families in defending them against fabricated or unwarranted charges AND prosecuting cases against those responsible for violating their rights. There must also be systematized monitoring of such cases and timely material, moral and political support. Genuine and lasting reforms must be pushed to strengthen and develop effective local remedies; and

5. A sanctuary or practical support mechanism should be prepared or provided human rights defenders under serious attack and their families and those who are key witnesses in cases involving issues on human rights.

To Defend the Defenders is to defend the Victims

Much has to be done. Clearly, with the Philippine government barely lifting a finger to end the climate of impunity, ending the spate of killings, disappearances and other rights violations rests on the perseverance and struggle of the people’s movement, of which people’s lawyers and human rights workers are part of, and the solidarity of all peoples against tyranny.

The necessity of defending human rights defenders is made imperative by the fact that it actually and basically means defending the victims themselves and upholding human rights. We must all get together and continue our solidarity. We shall overcome because we stand by and are on the side not only of the victims but the defenders who fight against the onslaughts on human rights in the battlefield towards social justice.

Human rights defenders may continue to face the perils in their line of work but it will never be enough to water down their passion in working for the causes that they believe in. It is most especially when human rights defenders become victims of human rights violations themselves that we must close ranks and consolidate in order to stand our ground amidst the vicious attacks by those who deny us of our humanity. Their idea is to sow terror and make us cow in fear. This we shall absolutely never allow. #

National Secretariat
National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers(NUPL)
3F Erythrina Bldg., Maaralin corner Matatag Sts. Central District,Quezon City, Philippines
Tel.No.920-6660,Telefax No. 927- 2812
Email addresses:[email protected] and [email protected]
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By calling yourselves the ‘people’s lawyer,’ you have made a remarkable choice. You decided not to remain in the sidelines. Where human rights are assaulted, you have chosen to sacrifice the comfort of the fence for the dangers of the battlefield. But only those who choose to fight on the battlefield live beyond irrelevance.”  Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, in his message to the NUPL Founding Congress,Sept. 15, 2007

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