“Never, never again!”

by Fatima Beydoun

Trigger warning: Mentions of death and state violence.

Image credit: Danielle Santos (@anye_santos)

I arrived in Manila during a challenging time for human rights supporters. Just a few days before, on May 9th, the Philippines held their 2022 presidential and vice-presidential elections, something I had been aware of upon first connecting with my host organization, the Ateneo Human Rights Centre (AHRC). During my introductory zoom call with my supervisor, I remember learning through her passionate enthusiasm about a largely youth-supported political movement taking place like none other before in preparation for the election. She and many others in the human rights line of work I’ve met were backing Leni Robredo, the vice-president at the time running as an independent and the only female candidate in the race. Robredo’s volunteer-led grassroots campaign termed the “pink revolution” was marked by mass youth volunteerism, crowdfunding and massive rallies calling for change and instilling a sense of hope to move forward from the Duterte Government.  

Anyone who’s heard of the Duterte regime is bound to know about his infamous war on drugs, marked by mass arrests and extra-judicial killings, which has had a devastating impact on the state of human rights in the country. The perceived threat to human rights in the 2022 elections was not over a re-run from Duterte but from Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. who is known for placing the Philippines under Martial Law from 1972 to 1986 until him and his family’s exiled.

Image credit: Danielle Santos (@anye_santos)

  Incessant extrajudicial killings, documented tortures, forced disappearances and mass incarcerations marked this period of martial law. Although enacted to reduce the increasing separatist rebellions and violent urban crimes at the time, the dictatorship suppressed calls demanding freedom, justice and democracy, with waves of arrest for any political opposition and accusations of corruption and power-grabbing, extending even to journalists. Furthermore, the Marcos’ authoritarian regime revealed unexplained wealth amassed over 21 years while the country’s debt mounted, with estimates reflecting significant amounts that are still a topic of primary discussion today.

Despite all this precedent and uncontested awareness of graft corruption, the seemingly promising “pink movement” was unsuccessful in winning over the presidential seat from the Marcos family, with Robredo losing by a wide margin of 16 million votes.

Wall of Remembrance at Bantayog ng mga Bayani (“Monument to the Heroes”) in Quezon City, Metro Manila

 Disappointment, fear, burnout and shock are a few words to describe the feelings I sensed from my colleagues following the election results, starting from the first virtual staff meeting I joined. Each colleague invested much of their labour and energy into the movement in the prior months, coupled with the fact that their everyday work deals with different aspects of human rights and government relations, and I could only imagine the hurt they were experiencing. As people who engaged with human rights advocacy during a Duterte government for the last six years, my colleagues at AHRC found themselves in limbo on what to expect next as the new government establishes their committee appointments, many of whom the staff would inevitably have to work with. They could only be left to speculate if things would remain the same, or if they needed to brace themselves for worse. Fears of history repeating itself is a shared sentiment for many other CSO with a human rights agenda/mandate in the Philippines, creating a suspended state of uncertainty impacting their strategic planning. 

Attendees surrounding a floor stage listening to a youth speaker for the martyr commemoration event on May 21st, 2022

 My first in-person internship experience was attending an annual commemoration event in honour of martial law victims at the end of May in Quezon City with two of my colleagues from AHRC. It took place in a beautifully enclosed courtyard outside a landscaped memorial center called “Bantayog ng mga Bayani“, or “Monument to the Heroes” in English. The memorial center honours the individuals who lived and died standing up for freedom and justice during the authoritarian Marcos regime (1972-1986), with the names of hundreds of martyrs etched into a black granite Wall of Remembrance. The event was attended by anywhere between 150-200 people, including journalists and loved ones of victims listed on the walls. With a sound speaker system in place, the program included a series of powerful speeches, family testimonies, and performances of poetry, song and music. While a reasonable portion was in English, the program was primarily in Tagalog, and my colleagues kindly took some time to translate some key moments. For example, they told me about how one speaker in his mid-50s  recounted with pride how his father was abducted during the 1988 elections because he was protecting the ballot.

What really stood out to me what the intergenerational attendance of the friends and families of some victims, where I observed what might have been four generations of relatives of a victim in a said group. One speaker was as young as seven, and I was overcome with emotions hearing him chant, “never, never again!” regarding martial law and state violence. Tragedy stays with a family through generations, and to have an awareness of this injustice at such a young age is never an easy thought to swallow.

It was a beautifully moving moment of holding space for collective rage and grief for past atrocities and the unknown that is feared to come with the incoming administration. However, event speakers and organizers stressed that they would not stop sharing and passing down these stories of lost ones, no matter how much the government may try to silence or scare them into submission. These stories will live on through the younger generation, and journalists are crucial for uncovering these stories of injustices, rendering them all the more worthy of support and protection.

 

Image credit: Danielle Santos (@anye_santos) Some candid images captured of me reading the names of Martyrs on the Wall of Rembrance courtesy of a photojournalist attendee named Danielle.

During a program break, I took some time to walk around and read through all the names on the Wall of Remembrance, where attendees had already placed some flowers and were taking what I assumed to be family pictures next to the etched names of loved ones. As I was nearing the final panel, I was approached by someone holding a camera I had spotted a few times prior during the event. She introduced herself as Daniella, and after sharing the reason for my attendance at the commemoration event as well as my summer internship, I came to learn that she was familiar with AHRC through past collaborations with the organization she was working with called IDEALS, and even kindly offered to send me resources on the topic of EJKs after I expressed my desire to learn more in my research tasks to come. Before parting ways, she showed me some candid shots she took of me while I was reading through the panels, and has permitted me to share them in this Blog post, alongside some other beautiful pictures she captured of the event. 

 

The candle that was given to me as the names of martial law victims were read out and the crowd was invited to light and place them against the Wall of Remembrance.

Afterwards, the event resumed with a concluding program of reading off of all the names of known martial law martyrs, where candles were distributed around for all attendees to light and place alongside the marble panels. The emotive instrumental music paired with the solemn reading off of names off the list as the large crowd of attendees migrated towards the Wall of Remembrance left me with goosebumps all over.

Image credit: Danielle Santos (@anye_santos)

This experience was such a critical moment that I am very thankful I was able to experience early on, as it was able to inform much of what I continue to come across in my work as an AHRC intern. It provided an important lesson always to remember the raw nature of human rights work; there are victims and their loved ones most closely impacted doing the frontline advocacy work, and that it is not just some theoretical and far removed phenomenon one such as myself has the privilege of only researching. Amidst feelings of dismay and frustration, there is resilience and courage in the testimonies shared at the event, keeping human rights work alive. As I continue to engage in human rights research and advocacy, I must remember these families and treat these testimonies and statistics with the respect they deserve. 

Human Rights Advocacy: More than Just Words and the Importance of Inclusion

By Kathleen Barera

My colleagues teaching me how to make the delicious infamous mango float dessert

During my internship, especially throughout the second half, I was exposed to a diversity of human rights advocacy work. I participated in Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC)’s two-day certificate course on “Children’s Rights in Action: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Learning About Children’s Rights in the Philippines”, attended the Child Rights Network advocacy planning workshop on online sexual exploitation of children in the Philippines, prepared interview questions for and conducted interviews with government-appointed representatives on children’s rights to ASEAN mechanisms and representatives from children’s rights NGOs, and visited the Manila City Jail.

“Nothing About Us Without Us”

Ateneo Human Rights Center’s certificate course on “Children’s Rights in Action: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Learning About Children’s Rights in the Philippines”

As a university-based human rights organization, human rights education is a vital aspect of AHRC’s advocacy work. The aim of the certificate course on children’s rights is not only to inspire collaboration among civil society and the government and private sectors to act in the interest of children’s rights, but also to ensure children are included as active participants in issues directly affecting them. There were a range of speakers, including from UNICEF and Save the Children, as well as a child- and youth-led panel on children’s participation, “nothing about us without us”, from ChildTALK and ChildTAP participants whom were child rights advocates as children. The former is an AHRC program in which children teach and learn with other children about their rights and children’s participation, and the latter is one in which children teach adults on the same. After all, children cannot be voiceless and excluded in the battle for their own rights. They are agents of their own lives and this has to be recognized to enact any meaningful change. The importance of empathy, thoughtfulness, change, creativity, child-friendly language, and learning by doing when including children as participants were some of the highlights from their inspiring panel.

Advocacy, it’s More Than Just Lip Service

Child Rights Network advocacy planning workshop on online sexual exploitation of children in the Philippines

Advocacy planning is another aspect of AHRC’s human rights advocacy work that I had the opportunity to experience firsthand. At the Child Rights Network advocacy planning workshop on online sexual exploitation of children in the Philippines, one of their three priority advocacy areas on children’s rights in the Philippines, I was surrounded by representatives from prominent children’s rights NGOs, including UNICEF, Save the Children, Plan International, Child Fund, and more. As stated in the workshop’s introductory remarks, advocacy extends beyond mere lip service; it is about real action in practice. Witnessing various human rights advocates in one room disseminating their organizations’ key findings on studies undertaken on the online sexual exploitation of children in the Philippines, and putting their minds together and gathering all their efforts to come up with a unified advocacy plan was inspiring. It really proved the initial statement that advocacy is more than just talking the talk, but that it’s about walking the walk. To be a human rights advocate means to take action to deliver on words spoken, or else, what’s the point?

Research Project Phase 2: Interview-Time

Preparing for a WhatsApp interview

At Save the Children Philippines office for interview with Chief Executive Officer and former Philippines ACWC representative on children

As part of the second phase of my research project on common children’s rights issues across the ASEAN, I directly interacted and engaged with government and civil society actors. I prepared interview questions for the respective representatives on children’s rights to the ASEAN Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) and civil society organization representatives with expertise on children’s rights in ASEAN. The information gaps were the basis for the formulation of questions and in deciding whom to interview. This is a very important aspect of the project, without which the project would not be complete. While I wasn’t able to interview everyone that I had in mind as a result of scheduling issues and time constraints, I interviewed the ACWC representatives on children from three ASEAN member-states, namely the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and from two civil society organizations, namely Save the Children Philippines and the ASEAN Foundation. These were conducted either in person, via WhatsApp video calls, or through email exchange.

Myself along with my two supervising lawyers and the executive director after my presentation on my research paper and findings (“Setting the Agenda: Defining Children’s Rights Issues in ASEAN”)

Manila City Jail Visit

In front of Manila City Jail

I was invited by the AHRC to join the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation, an NGO dedicated to protect persons deprived of liberty, especially the most vulnerable groups, in their Manila City Jail visit. Even though the jail has in place many programs to help persons deprived of liberty, the conditions were shocking. For instance, the kitchen was not only unhygienic, but there were two prisoners preparing rice for the 5000 other prisoners, and they do so three times a day. Moreover, prisoners survive on 70 pesos per day for three meals (less than 2$CAD). Most obviously, congestion issues (4 prisoners occupying the space for 1), especially resulting from the war on drugs, as most prisoners (73%) are imprisoned for drug-related offences, is especially problematic. In fact, drug offenders are more prone to congestion since the way the jail is classified is that drug offenders, whom make up the majority of prisoners, are assigned to the South side of the prison, whereas non-drug offenders are assigned to the North side. While the prisoners can admittedly roam free during the day, the question is, how do they sleep at night?

My lovely colleagues threw me a despedida/farewell consisting of lots of pizza followed by cake!

As my internship came to its end, I felt unprepared and sad to leave. I had become accustomed to the charms of Manila life, and equally became very attached to my work, the AHRC, and all my colleagues. Now, it’s already been over a week since my arrival back to Montreal, and I can only look back with much gratitude at how much I was able to learn and experience.

With some of my colleagues on my last day in the office

Broadening my Perspectives

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Me and my first kürtőskalács

By Jacinthe Dion

Szeretlek Magy. Cette phrase, qui se traduit à “j’aime la Hongrie,” fait partie des dix mots que j’ai appris de la langue hongroise depuis mon arrivée à Budapest au début de mai. Depuis mon arrivée, la ville me pousse à me poser pleins de questions : pourquoi de la crème sûre sur tout? Comment peut-il y avoir au tant de sortes de paprika? La goulash, le salami, le kürtőskalács, pogácsa, ce n’est pas pour rien qu’on dit que la Hongrie est une “capitale de bouffe.” Je me pose pleins de questions aussi sur l’histoire complexe de ce pays et sur leur culture de bains thermiques.

Parmi tous ces questionnements se trouve un autre genre de réflexion, une plutôt contraire à ce que je viens de mentionner, qui se fait dans un petit bureau sur la rue Hercegprímás au centre de la ville. De l’extérieur, la bâtisse reflète l’architecture riche de cette ville, juste à quelques pas de la fameuse Szent István Bazilika. De l’extérieur, personne ne pourrait imaginer ce qui se passe à l’intérieur, au troisième étage de cet édifice. Nul part n’est-il annoncé qu’une petite équipe passionnée au Mental Disability Advocacy Centre (MDAC) travaille ardument pour les droits des personnes ayant une déficience intellectuelle ou psychosociale.

The work that is done at MDAC cannot be summed up simply. This NGO currently has around 50 pending cases in 7 different countries. It is very interesting for me to cooperate in a different kind of activism for the rights of people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. I usually work directly with children with mental disabilities: teaching them swimming, playing games, or attending to medical appointments with them, all in the context of different organizations with which I am involved at home. However, what I do here at MDAC is different. MDAC uses law as a means of change; as a way to make a difference in the lives of people with mental disabilities.

Right before entering MDAC for the first time

Generally speaking, the way this is done can be summed up in two words: proactive law. Law serves more purpose than the set of rules it outlines for our society; it has the power to promote or limit equality, justice, and fairness. Having laws in place is not the end point, but only the starting point. How can people know about these laws if they are not promoted? How can they be implemented if nobody sees to their enforcement? How can they be respected if no one is given the tools to apply them and ensure they are being respected? It is necessary to proactively work to create an environment in which everyone has the same chances to live a prosperous life. That is what I feel I am a part of this summer. What I do might be little in the big picture, but every single case that MDAC advocates is contributing to provide this prosperous environment for people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities. But it is very difficult.

Every day, I read atrocities. Every week, I am responsible for producing a newsletter that reports all the recent relevant jurisprudence and news items that are relevant to our work. I read and I summarise. I read about children being placed in institutions when they are not even a year old. I read about teens confined in solitary wards and I read about people being confined in institutions against their will. Then, I read further about these individuals in institutions that are also having their rights infringed. I read, I read, I read and every day, as I cringe a little more, I become less surprised by the treatment people with mental disabilities are receiving, as it is so frequent. Is this how people become blind to atrocities, by setting standards based on what the norm has become? It is horrifying how our brain works, how it captures information, and how it remembers things. People’s stories become cases and cases become application numbers; people’s belongings become confiscated and they become evidence for trial; personal memories become testimonies and can then be used against you; similar cases are regrouped together and statistics are created. These processes are long, tedious, challenging, and exhausting and it is hard to conceive sometimes that all this started with a story, somebody’s horrible story.

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United Nations Peace One Day at American International School of Budapest, where I was a panelist for student presentations and representing MDAC

When I read, I replace the word ‘applicant’ with a name, where there are pictures, I capture faces, I think of cases as stories; I do everything I can to make everything as human as possible and less bureaucratic. Although that makes the read harder, it also makes it more real. These are people’s lives I am reading about and it is very easy to lose sight of that when you are working in an office 9:00 to 5:00 every day. I want to make sure with the case summaries I do, the research I conduct, the newsletters I create, and the meetings I take part in that I don’t lose my human touch with the work I do.

En fait, j’ai récemment réalisé à quel point j’étais influencée par mes lectures et mon travail. Je suis allée au cinéma avec une autre stagiaire de MDAC. Nous voulions aller voir un film léger après une longue journée de travail. Malheureusement, le film que nous voulions voir n’était qu’en Hongrois.  Nous avons donc opté pour une version anglophone du film Me Before You. Pour ceux qui n’ont pas encore vu ce film, je vous avertis que je pourrais vous gâcher la fin. En quelques lignes, ce film parle d’un tétraplégique qui souhaite mettre fin à ses jours. Dans ses derniers six mois de vie, sa mère engage une jeune femme pour lui tenir compagnie et bien sûr, ces deux derniers deviennent amoureux. En surface, ce film est peut-être qu’une histoire d’amour et une leçon sur le soutien inconditionnel d’un être un cher. À la fin, l’homme décide tout de même de mettre fin à sa vie afin d’arrêter de souffrir. Certes, pour moi ce film crée tout d’abord une énorme controverse pour les gens en situation d’handicap.

13599620_994527830642381_1396374541_nAt first, I was enraged. How could a movie so bluntly send a message that people with disabilities should consider suicide? No one’s suicide should be viewed as noble and inspirational, which is what I felt the movie was conveying. By doing such, it devalues the lives of people with disabilities whereas the message should really be that their lives are as precious as anyone else’s. I felt like romanticism was influencing our notion of human rights, rights MDAC fights to protect. However, while processing this information, I recalled a sentence that was said by a character in the movie that bothered me. Unsure of the exact words, I decided to retrieve the quote from the book the movie was based on: “[p]eople who are vulnerable should not be given the chance to do something that they’ll…”. Those words reflect the idea that other people should take decisions for people with disabilities, suggesting they lack the judgment to take decisions for themselves. However, the young woman who is in love with him understands the importance of giving him his choice and allowing him to decide for himself: “I’d sleep at night because I trust [him] to know what is right for him, and because what has been the worst thing for him has been losing the ability to make a single decision, to do a single thing for himself.” Then what is the right thing to do in this case? Do you let him take his own decision or not?  13639425_10210133754285059_157356367_o

I do not have a right answer to these difficult questions. I just realized then, when walking out of the movie, how much perspective my work at MDAC has brought me. One of the questions I was asked when applying for this internship inquired on what I hoped to take away from this experience. My answer could be summarised with my aspiration to broaden my knowledge and expertise in the field of human rights. Prior to this internship, seeing this movie would have rather left me mesmerized with the love story. In my application for this internship, I wrote “to best understand human rights, we cannot look only at an individual problem, within one social context, through the eyes of one legal tradition, but rather by looking at the bigger picture.” I acknowledged that often I failed to do that and I had hoped to reverse that this summer, and I think I just did.

 

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Fellow interns and I in the Buda hills during our Staff Away Day

Interns on Internships: Mise en abyme in Manila

2014-Spillane-Katieby Katie Spillane

The Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) sprang to life in the summer of 1987 as the wake of the People Power Revolution revealed the Philippines’ urgent need for alternative lawyers. Since its founding, the AHRC has evolved into a multi-pronged advocacy center whose capacities range from fundraising (1) to litigation. (2) As an intern at the AHRC, I have had the privilege of observing and participating in many aspects of the AHRC’s work – joining in the annual community school clean-up effort known as “Brigada Eskwela”, (3) attending “trainers trainings” for prosecutors of extra-judicial killings cases (4) and observing consultations between ASEAN diplomats and local civil society organizations.

Impressive though this list may be, the AHRC’s direct advocacy initiatives are just the tip of the iceberg. AHRC’s flagship program is the Human Rights Internship – an annual intensive exposure to alternative lawyering in the Philippines. The mission of the internship program is to form human rights lawyers who will fight for access to justice and for the empowerment of civil society in the name of peace, democracy, gender equality, good governance, and the rule of law. (5)

The program is ambitious. It begins with a rigorous multi-day orientation of advocacy crash-courses in areas ranging from environmental law to women’s rights. Students are then sent in small groups for a one-week immersion home stay with indigenous families. Upon their return, each student is assigned to a host NGO for five weeks “in the trenches” doing legal research and advocacy work.

As an intern in McGill’s own internship program, observing the inner workings of the AHRC’s internship program was often a bit of a mise en abyme. For two days in late May, my internship was devoted to observing interns reflecting on internships. For me, this raised many questions about the role of the human rights center within the community at large, the university setting, and the process of legal education. Among the questions that keep me curious are:

  • How can such centers best channel their financial, scholarly and lobbying resources?
  • Can the impact of their advocacy extend beyond an educational function?
  • Can relationships between students and host environments be symbiotic or are these necessarily lop-sided?
  • To what degree can student-centered experiences be expected to generate serviceable scholarship?
  • Do the strong interpersonal bonds that internships form generate the professional and political momentum necessary to realize broader societal goals or do they remain personal?
  • Are the long-term goals of human rights centers realized through the future work of their interns?

These are questions I will continue to reflect upon as my time in Manila draws to a close. I anticipate more questions will surface on the long flight home, during my research next autumn, and throughout my own professional development. While there are no easy answers, I am grateful to both McGill and Ateneo for their support in asking these questions!


REFERENCES

(1) Rosary Diane B. Maligalig “Ateneo’s Blueplate for Better Learning Program Comes a Log Way (Features)” available online: http://www.admu.edu.ph/news/ateneo’s-blueplate-better-learning-program-comes-long-way-features (last accessed July 18, 2014).

(2) See, e.g. Melencio Sta-Maria et al, v. Secretary of Justice, et al., G.R. No. 203335, April 22, 2014, available online: http://www.chanrobles.com/cralaw/2014aprildecisions.php?id=296 (last accessed July 18, 2014).

(3) Manila Bulletin “Editorial: Bayanihan spirit in Brigada Eskwela” May 18, 2014, available online: http://www.mb.com.ph/editorial-bayanihan-spirit-in-brigada-eskwela/(last accessed July 18, 2014).

(4) American Bar Association “Current Rule of Law Programs in the Philippines: Seeking justice for victims of extrajudicial killings” available online: http://www.americanbar.org/advocacy/rule_of_law/where_we_work/asia/philippines/programs.html#extrajudicial_killings (last accessed July 18, 2014).

(5) Asia Europe Foundation “Ateneo Human Rights Center” available online: http://www.asef.org/about/partners/partner/2572-AHRC (last accessed July 18, 2014).

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.