The Philippines: A country worth fighting for?
Clearly, things are going in a frightening direction,” United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor comments in light of the human rights situation in the Philippines.
With the massive number of casualties of President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs and the alarming rate of human rights violations and human rights activist killings—there is no way to dismiss the staggering state of the value of human rights in the country.
Despite this, there is not enough conviction from the side of the current administration to address such problems. Duterte even goes as far as rejecting the resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council to report on the issues highlighted. How will human rights defenders fare against this kind of governance?
Terror by the number
Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Philippines commissioner Leah Armamento states in an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel streamed on Aug 20, that a total of 89 human rights defenders have been killed from 2017-2019, while the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) reported a total of 248 from 2015-2019 in their annual report in June.
The constituents of CHR intend to investigate these cases, but find many difficulties in conducting them due to the constraints presented by the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the order of Duterte to withhold police reports on such incidents.
With the CHR’s endeavor to complete their task still underway, the emergence of the news regarding the killings of two more human rights defenders on Aug 10 and 17 have stirred a different level of distress towards various human rights organizations. Members of their respective groups mourned over the deaths of National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) peace consultant Randall Echanis and human rights group Karapatan legal worker Zara Alvarez.
Echanis and Alvarez, despite owing their allegiance to legal organizations, have been subjected to the practice of red-tagging: political harassment and labeling as communists or terrorists by citizens and authorities. Both their names have also been in the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) list of terrorists before they trimmed it down from 656 to 8 according to an amended petition filed on Jan 3.
A number of reasons may steer the people from the course of what activism truly is. XU Center for Legal Assistance (XUCLA) Director and College of Law Professor Atty. Ernesto B. Neri expounds on the belief of the authority and general public alike: that human rights are synonymous with armed struggle. On the contrary, Neri describes that activists “act as the mouth pieces that amplify certain viewpoints, […] play a role in accounting those in power, […] are organizers.” He elaborates on the power of the collective in order to affect change—something that cannot be achieved as seen in movements around the world and in history. “If dili organized ang tao. Activists play a vital role in communicating and organizing.” Since activists speak the truth, they may challenge the people in power, causing these people to retaliate through deriding them and painting them as destabilizers.
To depict these individuals as destabilizers poses a great danger for them. Lawlor states that activists are “targeted in all sorts of ways—from being abused on social media to being criminalised […], and, as you know in The Philippines, even killed.”
Neri stresses the gravity of the all too-common practice of red-tagging in the country. People are believed to assume that when you are out on the streets in any sort of political protest, you are immediately branded as a rebel. “Dili ni siya joke kay red-tagging is an accusation that you are a criminal. It transforms your status as a civilian to a combatant,” he adds.
It has come at an unprecedented time for the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 to replace the Human Security Act of 2007 which encompassed the provisions for how the state shall address crimes of terrorism in the country. Neri briefly enumerates the problematic aspects of the new law: a broadened definition of terrorism whereas any act with the intention to cause bodily harm is punishable; a condition of intimidating the government as enough motive to be branded a terrorist, which may include joining political rallies; and the possibility of arrest without warrant for mere suspicion of being a terrorist. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and in spite of the overwhelming opposition to the bill, Duterte signed it to law on July 3.
As a response to the likeability of the adoption of the new law having an influence on the cases of Echanis and Alvarez, Lawlor comments, “While every killing of an HRD is different, we know too that inciting a generally hostile context against HRDs is a dangerous and reckless thing to do.”
With the unfortunate reality of these risks as an extension of what having to fight for human rights entails, there may be routes taken to ensure one’s protection. This may be through legal means, in which the acquisition of evidence as documentation is a highly valuable component. Three laws under the Philippine Constitution may be applied: The writ of habeas corpus, wherein you may file a report on unlawful detention; the writ of habeas data, wherein you may petition for agencies and the government to destroy data that may threaten your security; and the writ of amparo, which is the preferred remedy for the aforementioned concerns, as it recognizes the violations made to life, liberty, and security by anyone, even public officials. Another alternative may be through meta legal means. Under this option, one may join a support group to gain a sense of security within a community, and one may explore sanctuary areas in the church and other organizations in more dire circumstances.
In addition to the ways in which people can seek protection, Neri asks, “Does that really help?” The constitution is explicit with its goal to keep the society at peace and its citizens safe. However, evident in the growing number of cases of human rights violations, those who wish to disregard such laws simply choose to do so. He emphasizes the eradication of an existing culture as most vital. “For you to really protect yourself in the long term, you have to attack the whole culture of impunity, and that takes a long time. It takes a change of leadership, it takes organizing, it takes laws as well, and accountability measures.”
Countless lives are at the mercy of the leaders of this country. Especially with it being a supposedly democratic state, its people’s judgement on the matters that greatly affect them should come as a valuable point for consideration. For a constitution brimming with laws that protect human rights, how has it come to a point where the country’s cases of human rights violations have become so alarming that international institutions find the need to intervene? And what happens to those whose intention is to protect these rights? They are shunned and branded as enemies of the very country they are advocating for.
Despite all the risks human rights activists face, we see them put up a strong front even in the last few years where their pursuits have been truly challenged. It may not seem like victory is to be had with the administration still adamant at the severity of the human rights situation, but human rights activists have not faltered in moving forward with their battle—the Philippines is, after all, a country made up of its people.C