From the Local to the National: A Snapshot of the Human Rights Situation in the Philippines

By Kathleen Barera

It’s already been about five weeks since I began my internship at Ateneo Human Rights Center in the Philippines. I am working at the AKAP/Child Rights Desk. My research project concerns the common children’s rights issues across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states, namely Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. This is part of Ateneo Human Rights Center’s project of “Building a Child-Friendly ASEAN”.

I am having an absolutely wonderful experience and don’t want my time to end! Ever since my first day, I have felt completely welcomed. I am lucky to be surrounded by and to be learning from a group of passionate, kind-hearted, and fun-spirited colleagues every day!

With some colleagues who treated me at a vegan restaurant, Cosmic

Luckily, I also arrived just in time for the basic orientation seminar on human rights, an integral part of the summer internship program, which prepares students for their week-long immersion in an indigenous community and their month-long internship with an NGO. In the span of four days, we participated in a number of informative sessions and workshops on topics ranging from indigenous rights to children’s rights and from alternative lawyering to paralegal training.

Human Rights: A Bad Word?

During the basic orientation seminar’s human rights and drug policy session, an attorney from StreetLawPH, an organization of lawyers and advocates with a mandate to provide access to justice to and protect the human rights of drug users in the Philippines,[1] said that ‘human rights’ has become a bad word here. Sadly, this statement truly does represent the current state of affairs in the country. I am reminded of this chilling reality each day as I read up on recent developments in the news.

Myself and the group at the Basic Orientation Seminar in Tagaytay City

Ever since Duterte’s presidency, the political climate in the Philippines has been far from conducive to human rights. Nearly two weeks ago, a 3-year-old child was fatally shot by a police officer during a drug bust operation.[2] Following this inconceivable tragedy, the words uttered by Senator Bato, a former police chief, were that “shit happens”.[3] This repugnant disregard for human life has been the norm from the moment Duterte became president in 2016. In fact, the human rights situation has rapidly deteriorated, most notably as a result of Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ (read: war on the poor),[4] particularly the extrajudicial killings of at least 27,000 suspected drug dealers to date, even children.[5] Duterte has in the past justified that any child killed in the drug war is ‘collateral damage’[6] and recently, he said that he prefers being connected to the extrajudicial killings than with corruption.[7]

Yet, Duterte has garnered and retained the support of many Filipinos. To my surprise, some people told me that they considered Duterte to be the Philippines’ best president, particularly because he has reduced crime. I learned at the seminar that this is unfortunately a common sentiment. When drug dealers are gunned down, there is a lack of empathy for the plight of the individuals in question. Instead, their tragic deaths elicit the reaction that there will now be less ‘criminals’ and ‘bad people’ on the streets.

Ateneo Human Rights Center-Save the Children Philippines meeting

The complete disregard for the rule of law under Duterte’s administration extends beyond the war on drugs. For one thing, the freedoms of dissenters have been undermined in many ways. There has been a crackdown on media freedom, such that journalists are increasingly targeted and murdered.[8] Duterte even threatened to have individuals who planned to file a case to have him impeached after the exclusive economic zone China-fishermen debacle imprisoned.[9] Furthermore, the rights of children in conflict with the law are under attack. Recently, the Senate refiled the bill to lower the age of criminal liability for children from 15 to 12 years old.[10]

Metro Manila Pride March: Love Conquers Hate

On June 29, I attended the Metro Manila Pride March and Festival, themed Resist Together, in Marikina City. I felt proud to stand as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community in the Philippines. There was a record-breaking crowd of over 70,000 participants, almost triple the number of attendees from 2018.[11]

Metro Manila Pride March in Marikina City, where participant is seen marching on, despite the disruptive opposition from some religious counter-protestors

While Manila has the biggest Pride demonstrations in Southeast Asia,[12] I knew to expect counter-protests from religious groups. I witnessed dozens of people lined up holding signs and handing out pamphlets about how God hates sin, but not the sinners, and that LGBTQ+ people can be saved.[13] An attendee told me that for the most part, nobody confronts the counter-protestors; rather, they continue to celebrate themselves in their march for equality. While I was angered by their disruptive presence, I decided to focus my attention on the laughter, love, purpose, and warmth emanating from the crowd of participants, with “Free Hugs” signs and open resistance to social injustice.

Although there are closed-minded people who don’t believe their fellow human beings deserve the same dignity and human rights as them, and even though the SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression) equality bill is still pending in Congress, the mayor of Marikina City enacted, on the same day and in front of the attendees, an anti-discrimination ordinance.[14] The ordinance ensures equal rights to the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace, education, and government services, and also criminalizes discrimination.[15] In a country where the President claims that beautiful women helped him ‘cure’ himself of being gay,[16] this is a powerful symbol of hope for a better future.

In front of the Rizal Monument at the Rizal Park, which commemorates the executed national Filipino hero Jose Rizal

Pinoy local dish kare-kare (peanut sauce stew with vegetables) made vegan

Halo-halo, a popular Filipino dessert, topped with ube (purple yam) ice cream

The tricycle/trisikad, a common form of transportation, in Intramuros (the walled city)

[1] See: https://www.hri.global/abstracts/abstracthr19/593/print

[2] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1138105/shit-happens-bato-says-after-a-child-got-killed-in-drug-bust

[3] Ibid.

[4] See: https://www.hrw.org/tag/philippines-war-drugs & https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/08/rodrigo-dutertes-drug-war-is-large-scale-murdering-enterprise-says-amnesty 

[5] See: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/philippines#c007ac https://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-rights-un/philippines-faces-call-for-un-investigation-into-war-on-drugs-killings-idUSKCN1TZ22M

[6] See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/17/duterte-says-children-killed-in-philippines-drug-war-are-collateral-damage

[7] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1139316/duterte-you-may-link-me-with-ejks-but-not-with-corruption

[8] Ibid.

[9] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1134976/duterte-on-impeachment-proponents-ill-jail-them-all

[10] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1135970/early-18th-congress-bills-lower-age-of-criminal-liability-anti-fake-news-and-terrorism/amp?fbclid=IwAR0g47oS7QPRY9BSAOFfK2v-70WEsgR2dJBWaIpKeGQUB4XT9U-FA_6u5Lc

[11] See: https://www.rappler.com/move-ph/234225-metro-manila-pride-2019-attendees-breaks-record

[12] Ibid.

[13] See: https://www.rappler.com/move-ph/234350-how-religious-groups-clashed-lgbtq-rights-pride-march-2019

[14] See: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1135560/marikina-mayor-signs-anti-discrimination-ordinance

[15] Ibid.

[16] See: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/world/asia/duterte-gay.html

An Institutional Infection

By Alicia Blimkie

It’s easy to love the Philippines. The country is a place of contrasts, with a mere handful of blocks separating towering glass skyscrapers from shacks with tin roofs that could fall over with a single gust of wind (and the country gets a lot of typhoons, so fall over they do). But one thing that stays constant is the people. Their friendliness crosses class divides and endures hardships. No matter where I walk, I’m always greeted with a smile and “Morning, po!” This spark in people’s eyes is even more spectacular when you realize the suffering that this country has experienced. Centuries of colonization (first under the Spanish, then the Americans), massive casualties during WWII, then a decade of dictatorship and martial law under the Marcos regime forced the country through seemingly endless suffering, in multiple forms. The true resilience of the Filipino people is demonstrated by the fact that all of this violence culminated in the peaceful EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986, which ushered in a transition to democracy.

View from the Makati courthouse

But the freedom that was found after the transition is now under threat. I’ve heard people say that the atmosphere today feels like it did in the 1980s, when fundamental freedoms were stamped out. Many journalists and other political activists are afraid to speak out against the government. (If you think the fake news issue was bad during the 2016 U.S. election, you should look at the fake news in the Philippines). Political opposition leaders have been attacked, some having been thrown in jail for yet-unproven drug offenses.

But I’d like to write about one particular event. While my tired body was being carried through the air, across the Pacific to Manila, the Justices of the Supreme Court of the Philippines were busy voting out their Chief Justice. Imagine, for a moment, that the Supreme Court of Canada voted to oust Wagner or dear Bev McLachlin from the court. Yes, this is just as crazy and unfathomable as it sounds. And it was unthinkable for many of the Filipino lawyers I work with, as well.

To put the incident in context, the Philippines has a government and judiciary modeled after the American system, including built-in checks and balances on power. Filipino lawyers and law students look up to their Supreme Court as upholding independence and rule of law as much as we do. This was a shock. Filipino law students are taught that the only way to remove a Chief Justice from office is through impeachment – they would get the question wrong on their exam if they wrote otherwise. Instead, Chief Justice Sereno was removed via a process called quo warranto, which essentially declares that the appointment was never valid in the first place. The court was able to justify its use of quo warranto by interpreting a phrase in the Constitution which states that the Chief Justice may be removed by impeachment to mean that she could also be removed through other means. This diverged from how the provision had previously been interpreted, thus, as some argue, contravening stare decisis.

What are the consequences of this? Chief Justice Sereno had opposed the current government multiple times in her judgments. It was the Solicitor General – representing the government – that submitted the petition for quo warranto. The worry is that the highest court is being influenced by political pressure. In a country where officials are constantly accused of involvement with drug trafficking, and where alleged traffickers are often killed without due process, this is a serious issue. And if government officials can now use quo warranto proceedings to remove members of the judiciary who oppose them then they also have the chance to fill these positions with those who are loyal to the regime. So much for a strong, independent institution.

Volunteering with AHRC staff to paint a local elementary school

A loss of judicial independence is not just an academic or legal issue, it has serious human rights implications. One issue is due process. For those officials who can be removed via quo warranto, there is a prescription period of one year. In its reasoning, the Supreme Court stated that this deadline did not apply to the government. But if that is the case, with what other offenses can the government charge people, regardless of prescription? The court that was supposed to protect individual rights could potentially rule in line with its political inclinations now, more than with the law. Freedom of expression may also be negatively impacted. The removal of someone in a high-ranking position who stood up against the government contributes to an atmosphere of fear. If the Chief Justice can be removed by a President who doesn’t like her, what about people with lower profiles whose stories will not end up in the news?

A courtyard in Intramuros: the old part of Manila

Ultimately, this event made me reflect on the fact that the institutions to which we cling so tightly are largely abstract, and often ephemeral. Even if the buildings and the people working in them are physical, much of an institution’s effectiveness depends on the trust of the public and the willingness of employees to do their work in good faith. These structures are fragile, and what can reduce them to rubble is simply people changing their minds. The question of how to build institutions that will withstand the test of time is a difficult one, but it is highly important, particularly for societies with violent pasts that are rebuilding for a brighter present and future.

 

“Let your smile change the world”

By Alicia Blimkie

This might sound a bit strange, but I never thought about the Philippines as a “developing country” until I found out that I would be spending the summer in Manila. Growing up in Vancouver and attending Catholic school all my life, I was surrounded with friends and acquaintances who were Filipino. Because it was a place I heard about often, it didn’t seem foreign to me in the way that other developing countries did as I was growing up. I didn’t think about the Philippines as a nation of malnourished children living in shacks, like the one-sided images of Africa that my young brain saw on TV, but as the place where many of my friends were from. When I heard where I would be spending the summer I didn’t give much thought to any culture shock that I would experience until I arrived and the sun, humidity, traffic and bugs welcomed me to the old “Pearl of the Orient”.

A courtyard in the Commission on Human Rights

As part of its obligations under the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Philippines must submit a state report. The national Commission on Human Rights is in the process of compiling information for an alternative report. In partnership with the Ateneo Human Rights Centre (AHRC) and UNICEF, the Commission held regional inquiries throughout the country to gather input on the implementation of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) from children themselves. I was able to attend the session in the National Capital Region (NCR), which focused on three topics: the children of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs – sorry, lots of acronyms), children with HIV/AIDS, and discrimination against children born to unwedded parents.

In Canada, we think about OFWs in the context of temporary workers who come into the country. As immigration advocates, we focus on their conditions of employment, access to legal remedies, and potential for permanent residence. These are all important, but we tend not to see temporary migrant workers from the opposite perspective, that of the children across the ocean who lose a mother or a father for years on end. At the NCR inquiry, the children spoke of the pain of not having a parental figure to share their life with. Some are abused by the caregivers they are left with in the Philippines. Those who travel with their parents may not be able to access social services, including education, in their destination country. This discussion reminded me of a recently published article in the Globe and Mail.[1] The article spoke of the difficulties of Filipino children who are able to migrate to Canada only years after their parents arrive. It speaks of how gaps in the Canadian immigration system have caused some of the painful separation that I witnessed the children speak of here in Manila. In some ways, Canada and the Philippines are linked by movement of labourers, who should be seen as mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers, rather than just a boost to the economy.

2000 year-old Ifugao rice terraces in Northern Luzon

The second theme discussed was HIV/AIDS. It was shocking for me to discover that the Philippines has the fastest growing rate of HIV infections in Asia. Most of these new infections occur in youth, most of whom are men. A large problem is unwillingness to talk about the issue. It is seen as taboo, linked with sex and drugs. To me, this issue really highlighted the invisible nature of many human rights concerns. Other human rights abuses plaguing the country, such as extrajudicial killings or labour rights, are much more visible and publicized. The danger of taboo subjects that live inside a person is that a child’s life may be irrevocably changed because their parent or teacher was too embarrassed to speak to them about HIV and AIDS.

The final issue was that of children born out of wedlock. For children in this situation, the Family Code declares them “illegitimate”, and they have different rights than “legitimate” children. Many of these children face discrimination socially, as well as legally, despite the fact that a 2016 survey conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority found that nearly half of all births that year occurred out of wedlock.[2]  One activity at the NCR inquiry involved the children preparing skits. One group acted out a child being mocked at school because she had a different surname than her sister, which one child later revealed was based on personal experience.

Tricycles: a common means of transportation

After zooming in on these issues, it’s useful to take a step back and realize that the NCR inquiry also highlighted something that the Philippines is doing well. Article 12 of the CRC states that children should be able to express their views freely on matters that affect them and should be provided with opportunities to be heard. The Committee on the Rights of the Child praised the Philippines in its 2009 report for its efforts on child participation. The AHRC is committed to fulfilling this Article of the CRC through many of its other initiatives, as well.

Sunset over Makati

While I knew that I would learn about human rights concerns while I was in Manila, I didn’t really anticipate the number of times when I would encounter something that the Philippines was doing better than Canada. Does Canada ask its children – those in poverty or in indigenous communities – whether their rights are being fulfilled? This brings me back to my conceptual difficulty in placing the Philippines in the same box as all other developing countries. Not that it is better or worse than other “third world” nations, but each of these countries is drastically different. I think one thing I have learned here is that development is not a straight line. This is one of those things that’s obvious when you say it, but is very different to actually experience. While the Philippines’ efforts in child participation, achievements in gender equality, and its regionally lauded refugee system place it ahead of many countries, its record is worse on other human rights issues. As much as we need to concentrate on problem areas to develop strategies to fix them, there are also times when we need to take note of human rights successes, or risk getting bogged down in failures. As one child at the NCR inquiry quoted: “Don’t let the world change your smile, let your smile change the world”.

 

[1]https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-for-this-generation-of-filipino-canadians-broken-policies-have-left-a/

[2]https://psa.gov.ph/content/births-philippines-2016

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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