Without the Rule of Law

Alexander Agnello

Some of my loved ones asked how I “helped” in the Philippines. It is a question that is hard to answer without sounding like BLSAM[1]’s “intrepid global citizen”[2]: the person who came prepared to “make a difference”. The truth is that no amount of education could have prepared me for the regime change in the Philippines. Under the newly elected Duterte administration, there have been over 2000 summary executions in the last two months[3]. In a country where justice is “slow” and the prison system is one of the most overcrowded[4], trial by publicity has become the main method of usurping crime.

I am referring to a president who publishes hit-lists and turns poor citizens into contract killers. In his profanity-filled speech to a crowd in the slums of Tondo, Duterte calmly explains “[i]f you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful”[5]. In fact, the vast majority of summary executions have been performed by vigilantes, and on the streets of Manila lay corpses with placards that read “Do not follow me. I am a drug pusher/dealer” in Tagalog.

With this blatant disregard for the rule of law, stakeholders are focusing on informing the public of the atrocities this government is committing, and making important links to the infamous Marcos martial law era. But you could only do so much condemning. The Philippine National Police are part of the death squad, the country has a dire journalistic impunity record[6], and so field reporting by other groups has been admirable and necessary. A report submitted by Father Amado Picardal shows that none of the 1424 suspects killed from 1998 to 2015 by Duterte’s former government in Davao were charged in court.”[7] Another organization I met with, the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation (HLAF)[8], are working in conjunction with local governments for expedited due process through a jail decongestion project. HLAF Attorney Kim Claudio proposed that we visit some of the city jails to provide legal information to detainees and update some of them on their cases. He explained to me that many of the detainees wait years, sometimes decades, for their cases to be heard. Although detainees are presumed innocent in the eyes of the law, society tends to brand them as criminals because they have spent so much time in the penitentiary system. Shortly after our visit, photos of overcrowding in Quezon City Jail that showed inmates sleeping on top of other inmates made their rounds on international news and social media. I hoped that the public condemnation of abominable prison conditions would signal a turn of the tide, but now I am uncertain. After a promise to kill 100 000 criminals and “fatten the fish in Manila bay”, thousands of Filipinos continue to turn themselves in out of fear of being killed on plain suspicion[9][10].

 

Credit: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Credit: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

 

The rule of law is often seen as a starting point and a constant in theoretical work in law and political philosophy. However, in a country where the best human rights lawyers and advocates are put under heavy pressure by a state that promotes vigilantism, abuses power, and provides no chance for due process, it is difficult as an intern to know where to begin. I’ve read and watched debates on alternatives to the rule of law and international standards, but I had never worked alongside people struggling to uphold them until I came to the Philippines. I left Montreal on the day of the national election, without a clear idea of how hard it could get. Fortunately, I had the chance to work in solidarity with alternative law groups and an inspiring group of Ateneo Human Rights Interns, who all work relentlessly to hold the Duterte administration accountable, and who serve “the lost, the least, and the last”.

Human Rights Interns Group Arawatan at a retreat in Tagaytay.

Human Rights Interns group Arawatan at a retreat in Batangas. Credit: The Ateneo Human Rights Center, August 4, 2016.


[1] The Black Law Students’ Association of McGill

[3] http://www.businessinsider.com/rodrigo-dutertes-drug-war-in-the-philippines-has-killed-2000-2016-8

[4] http://time.com/4438112/philippines-overcrowded-prison-manila-rodrigo-duterte/

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/01/philippines-president-rodrigo-duterte-urges-people-to-kill-drug-addicts

[6] http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/04/asia/philippines-deadly-for-journalists/

[7] http://www.manilatimes.net/duterte-kills-only-bad-men/259609/

[8] http://home.hlaf.org.ph/

[9] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-36251094

[10] http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/08/asia/duterte-war-on-drugs-officials-surrender/

Alternative Lawyering at AHRC

2016 Agnello AlexanderBy Alexander Agnello

“Those who have less in life should have more in law” – former President of the Philippines, the late Ramon Magsaysay.

It’s a quote that was first introduced to me by my mentor Attorney Anne Manigbas, and it stuck. What it means to provide “more in law” is not evident, although at first glance it seems to propose a transformative or redistributive project. I have spent these two months at Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) grappling with how alternative lawyers set out to provide “more in law” for those who have “less in life”.

The term “alternative” in alternative lawyering is often taken to describe a difference in career choice (corporate law vs. public interest law). This is an erroneous and superficial interpretation, since “alternative” is meant to describe an ethos that can and should be implemented in various sectors, be they commercial or public interest. Alternative lawyers do often take on careers outside of the mainstream, but what differentiates their work is its commitment to a different route to, and conception of, justice. As I’m writing to you, I realize that I cannot give a developed picture of alternative lawyering without delving into my ongoing projects and recent experiences.

I had the fortune of being the first McGill/foreign intern to attend the Orientation Seminar of Ateneo Human Rights Center’s flagship program: The Human Rights Internship. The purpose of the Orientation Seminar is to provide training on human rights advocacy, focusing on the practice of alternative lawyering for marginalized groups. The conference presentations on Statelessness, Agrarian Form, and the Migrant Worker Sector were amazingly detailed crash courses by alternative lawyers. It gave students a glimpse of the way alternative lawyers practice law: they work with clients, and this commitment to a client can go as far as marching over 2000 kilometers from Mindanao to Malacañang Palace with the Sumilao farmers to rightfully reclaim their land. The practice-based workshops on Popular Education, Paralegalism, and Legal Aid were a test of a student’s ability to empathize with a client’s position, master the legal and rhetorical tools at their disposal, and give a client a genuine opportunity to be active participants in justice.

AHRC Interns taking part in a Boodle Fight

AHRC Interns taking part in a Boodle Fight

After orientation, the students move onto their placements across the country to begin carrying out the work of an AHRC intern, captured by the motto: “Learn the Law, Serve the People”. I remain in Manila to work on the ongoing projects of the Women’s and Children’s Rights desks. We are pressuring the government to raise the age of sexual consent, currently set at 12 years of age. We are assisting the European Union with their human rights and democratization strategy in the Philippines. We are part of a consultation group that will propose a Sex Offender Registration and Notification Bill to Senate and Congress. We are one of the alternative law groups monitoring the judiciary. But at the same time, the lawyers here devote a great deal of their time to community service. I participated in their annual campaign to renovate classrooms for the start of the school year. I helped organize a workshop on legal literacy and cyberspace safety for vulnerable youth, with the aim of preparing the students to teach a lesson plan on these topics to their peers.

In all of this, I saw that the alternative lawyer is not part of the isolated technocrat class or a paternalistic figure who sees it as his/her duty to hold a client’s hand all the way to a court victory. An alternative lawyer provides “more in law” by collaborating with other members of society to build a more accessible, inclusive and dynamic justice system. Ideally, this system will recognize that reconciliation, civic education & involvement, indigenous dispute resolution and other alternatives are valuable ways to bring more individuals into the conversation for aims that are far more fruitful to global justice than a day in court.

A fire in Manila Bay

A fire in Manila Bay

Because I have only begun to familiarize myself with the AHRC’s alternate lawyer ethos, I will rely on the words of Sir Marlon Manuel, National Coordinator of the Alternative Law Group and a former AHRC intern:

“Alternative lawyers are swimmers against the tide. They test the water, they dip into the water, and they swim. And while swimming, they call others to join them, even those who cannot swim. They continue to swim, they continue to call others, and they feverently hope (dream) that, with enough swimmers in the water, they can turn the tide… “The objective… is not really to teach swimming, but to simply encourage dipping into the water”[1]


[1] Training Manual for Paralegals, A publication of the Ateneo Human Rights Center (2010), p. 9.

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