Human Rights in the Philippines: Experiences and Challenges
Keynote Address by Leila de Lima
Former Chairperson, Commission on Human Rights
Australia-Philippines Policy Forum on Human Rights
17 June 2010
We come together at an opportune time. Over a month ago, millions of Filipinos trooped to the polls, braving long lines, intense heat and in some cases, the threat of violence, in order to cast their ballots and thereby usher in, meaningful improvement over the status quo. Since then, results have been released and winners have been proclaimed. And at the end of this month, we will witness the inauguration of a new President.
The occasion crossfades the departure of the Arroyo Government and ushers in the promise of constructive change of the New Aquino Administration. While we must give credit to the Arroyo administration for some of the advancements, especially in human rights legislation, statute alone does not deliver true protection.
The exit of the current administration brings an end to nine years of tepid enforcement, rabid violation and dismal disregard for human rights protection in the country. And it will offer the potential for political, institutional and social rehabilitation and renewal, allowing the State to pivot away from seemingly endless denial, inexplicable inaction and suspicious complicity, toward a good faith and concrete implementation of its human rights obligations.
The signs so far have been promising. President-elect Aquino, in particular, avowed that there must be closure to the bloody chapter of unresolved murders:
“Cases of extrajudicial killings need to be solved, not just identify the perpetrators but have them captured and sent to jail."
This is the time to send a clear message to the new set of elected leaders, that human rights must be made a priority, and that rhetoric must be supported by effective action. This is a time for vigilance, so that the promises of the campaign trail will not simply be superseded by business as usual, once individuals assume office. This is the time for human rights advocates to redouble our efforts, build up our capacities and strengthen our alliances.
We cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security, by the optimism brought about by this electoral transition. Presidents come and go. Cabinets, administrative teams and appointed officials change. But human dignity and the rights of individuals will always need to be safeguarded, against violations by the State, armed opposition groups and private actors.
Therefore, this Policy Forum on Human Rights, co-convened by the Australian Embassy is deeply appreciated. This gathering of individuals and institutions, who support and assist the efforts of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), who work to further bolster its capabilities moving forward, and who advocate tirelessly on behalf of human dignity, will help focus even more of the attention of our incoming leaders, on human rights and the associated State obligations under international law.
Let me thank Ambassador Rod Smith, and the Australian Embassy. Let me thank the Hon. Catherine Branson and the Australian Human Rights Commission, Congressman Lorenzo Tañada and the House Committee on Human Rights, Usec. Linda Hornilla and the Department of Justice, Dr. Jose Pablo Baraybar of the Equipo Peruano de Antropologia Forense (EPAF), Ms. Melinda Quintos-De Jesus and the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility, and all our other friends and colleagues who are here today. And finally, let me thank and honour Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno and the Supreme Court.
While the challenges we face are many, and while the road ahead appears daunting, we draw strength from our shared convictions, and the common realization that human rights must be respected, protected and fulfilled everywhere, in order for all of us to achieve true security, sustainable prosperity and a lasting peace.
The state of human rights in the Philippines, over these last nine years, has frankly been dispiriting. While there have been a few bright spots in some areas, for the most part, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights have been undermined. A culture of impunity remains pervasive in the country, and this lack of accountability is one of the catalysts, of continuing and sometimes harrowing instances of human rights violations.
On the right to life – The massacre in Maguindanao, where dozens of journalists, human rights advocates, lawyers and civilians were abducted in broad daylight and brought to a grisly end nearby, is only one of the more prominent instances of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. There have been many others, far too many.
Hundreds have been alleged murdered or disappeared over the last several years, including activists, journalists, judges and other officers of the court, as well as other civilians. Deaths have been linked to the government’s counterinsurgency strategy, Oplan Bantay Laya, which have resulted in targeting civilians in clear contravention of human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL).
The obligations of Non State Actors have come into question as rebel and separatist groups continue to face allegations of abduction, torture and murdering civilians. Death squads victimize petty criminals and street children, with the failure by concerned local government units and national authorities to promptly, impartially and thoroughly investigate these allegations.
On freedom from torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment – An Anti-Torture Law was finally passed though it remains to be seen whether the existence and implementation of this law will result in meaningful change.
The reality is that inmates in the Philippines continue to face the very real risk of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The case of the ‘Morong 43’ is emblematic of this. Their continuing incarceration is linked to the government’s counterinsurgency efforts, with the military alleging that the 43 health workers are in fact rebels. Many of the detainees have described experiencing harassment, physical and mental torture attendant with discriminatory acts at the hands of their captors.
And in general, the dehumanizing conditions to which Philippine prisoners are routinely exposed are appalling. They lack adequate nutrition, sufficient space and working toilet and sewage systems which have rendered prisons as incubators for disease. Instances of abuse and violence are rife in prisons and detention facilities which could also be attributed to a lack of a systematic rehabilitation program for persons deprived of their liberty. This status quo is unacceptable but the situation has so far proved stubbornly resistant to change.
On freedom of expression and the right to information – A Freedom of Information Bill nearly passed recently, which would have induced deterrence with increased government transparency and the public’s access to information to hold government leaders accountable. Unfortunately, this bill died an ignoble death in Congress, thanks to a successful effort to prevent a quorum in the House of Representatives.
Libel suits continue to be the weapon of choice for politicians and other powerful figures, looking to effectively neutralize public criticism. These lawsuits, as well as the violence against journalists, create a chilling effect which can effectively undercut the search for truth.
On the right to vote – One key development in this regard was the effective implementation of the right to vote of detainees. It is hoped that by allowing inmates to cast their ballots en masse, they would finally be in a better position to demand that their dignity be respected, all year round. That said, it is also clear that the disenfranchisement of other vulnerable groups, such as persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, internally displaced persons, and more, is something that must be addressed post haste.
Extortion attempts carried out by armed opposition groups had curtailed the right of candidates to visit local areas, as well as the right of communities to meet the candidates, and make free and informed choices. Flaws in the automated election system, if left unresolved, could potentially leave future elections open to fraudulent manipulation by interested parties, thereby making a mockery of the right of suffrage.
On freedom from discrimination – An attempt by an LGBT organization to get on the 2010 ballot resulted in statements being made by key institutions and individuals, statements which exposed some of the continuing deep-seated prejudices, held by some members of society against gays and lesbians. While the Supreme Court held that the organization could run, it is clear that much remains to be done, through education, awareness raising and information dissemination, to correct myths, address biases, and promote an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual understanding.
The Philippines is still a long way off from granting gays and lesbians many of the same rights that heterosexuals enjoy.
Many of the mineral rich areas of the country are found in the vicinity of the ancestral domains of IPs. This has led to situations where IPs have been subjected to bribery, harassment, intimidation and acts of violence, in order to prevent or defuse resistance to the arrival of mining companies. IPs have also fallen victim to the pernicious effects of the government’s counterinsurgency strategy. Allegations have been made of IPs being forced to sign up as members of CAFGUs or CVOs, forcibly drafted into the conflict. And if they refuse, they run the risk of being branded as rebels or rebel sympathizers themselves, transforming them into targets, without cause.
The situations faced by internally displaced persons (IDPs) can be just as dire. Forced to flee their homes by armed conflict or natural disasters, many find themselves in makeshift camps or other temporary shelters, compelled to rely on others for food, clothing and shelter. They face deprivation, the risk of disease and an uncertain future. Many times they are forced to flee again and again, the pattern of evacuation and human want being written and rewritten, from year to year, affecting tens and thousands.
On the right to an adequate standard of living, to health and to an education – As per the U.N. Development Program, the Philippines has a high probability of attaining its Millenium Development Goal targets relating to poverty, malnutrition, infant mortality, access to safe drinking water, and the prevalence of HIV and malaria. That’s the good news.
The not-so-good news relates to such areas as elementary school participation and completion, maternal mortality and responsible parenthood. These challenges relating to education, health and population growth, if left unchecked, will only end up exacerbating our current problems and potentially perpetuate poverty into the next generation.
Corollary to poverty is the lack of opportunities and the resulting problem of trafficking of persons. The Philippines remains on the US Government’s human trafficking watchlist due to its inefficient judicial system. Children and Women systematically get trafficked for work and sexual exploitation within and outside the country.
The current theme of transition and change is not necessarily much of a reason for celebration. For those who have made an enemy of the administration, perhaps they will stir exaggerated euphoria over the transition of government. For us, it would be impolite. But more than impolite, now is the time for yet another enormous exertion of effort on the part of allies in human rights.
As exciting and hopeful as the prospects are, we may very well find ourselves in new circumstances, a new governmental policy and a new atmosphere where the pulse of human rights protection depends heavily, if not exclusively, on our efforts. There may be no mysterious, hidden force behind human rights violations to lay blame on. There may be no extraordinarily powerful hierarchical structure of rent-seeking or coddling to undress or uncover. There may be no sinister, invisible hand to handcuff, no arm to yank, no body to arrest and no face to unmask.
There may be no one, except ourselves to scrutinize. And thus, beyond the effort that must be miraculously multiplied, even the timing of our effort will be under close inspection. It is more urgent than ever – we must act now.
If we do not act expeditiously, if we wait until some unscrupulous forces close in to occupy the vacuum created by the exit of the last administration, if we wait for another invisible hand to orchestrate a new movement of human rights violations, and negligently wait before we act courageously – then all our efforts in the future will be exactly what critics have characterized human rights protection to be: pure and exaggerated rhetoric, grossly ambitious to the point of impracticable, always aspirational but never executable and the worst of them all, an easy spiel for hollow grandstanding consistently abused by insincere public officials.
I have been constantly accused of grandstanding in the name of human rights. The critics may be right. Perhaps we came too late to do anything meaningful against a culture of impunity that persisted for almost a decade. We could not find enough of the missing, enough of the executed. We could not accost enough of the cruel torturers, enough of the nefarious benefactors. Even genuine efforts can appear insincere when results are spare.
And that is why we cannot fail this time. Now is not the time to celebrate. Now is not the time to derive respite or relief. Now is the time to set the table, to carve the grooves upon which the new administration should tread. The transition is the time to ensure that human rights advocates and defenders do not come too late to the table, and that our new elected officials are apprised of the increasingly important theme of vigilance over human rights.
Support comes from everywhere – as we happily recognize today with the gathering of our partners, including our Australian counterparts. And your support must translate into exponential participation from all sectors of Philippine society, established early and its growth in the years ahead, secured. Time and again, it has been emphasized that the effort must be great in order to reverse the human rights situation. Time and again, it has been an urgent call to act in the present, when the call is made. But to my mind, no present moment found along the timeline of the Aquino administration is more critical than now – right before we turn a leaf at noon on June 30th.
This early, I offer you the People's most heartfelt appreciation. And I offer you our most urgent appeal to continue to stand with us in the fight to preserve human rights for the Filipino people.