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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

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

Safeguards – Regional and International Protections on the Rights of Children

Katerina LagasséBy Katerina Lagassé
The Adhikain Para Sa Karapatang Pambata (AKAP)[1] Child Rights Desk of the Ateneo Centre for Human Rights works with different stakeholders to advocate for children and has contributed to drafting legislation and building programming for the ASEAN region in partnership with Save the Children.

Currently, AKAP is compiling research on children and corporate social responsibility. In the ASEAN region, children are affected by adverse business practices. They may be affected either directly, by working illicitly as underage labourers, or through other means such as being relocated with their families as a result of land expropriation by corporations or the government, through forced migration due to social and or economic pressures and by being exposed to toxic substances from resource extractive industry practices.

Supporting children’s rights requires businesses to continually and diligently assess their potential human rights impacts and mitigate the issues that are identified. All ASEAN member States have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and continue to implement domestic laws that follow the CRC framework.[2]

There are different social, economic, and political environments in the ASEAN States which create obstacles to the effective implementation of the CRC. All ASEAN member States are parties to the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. This convention recognizes the proximity of borders and promotes regional cooperation to effectively “combat trafficking in persons, especially against women and children, and to ensure just and effective punishment of traffickers […]”[3]. However, ASEAN member States are each affected differently by the impacts on children associated to business practices. As mentioned these impacts include exploitative child labour and human trafficking and other factors that result from social and economic disparity that shape vulnerable populations (migration, HIV and AIDS, Natural disasters, emerging diseases and conflict).[4]

Certain provisions of the CRC are particularly relevant to business responsibility and state protection.[5] As per the CRC, State parties  “recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development” and are required to “take legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to ensure the implementation of the present article(s)”.[6] Recognition in particular requires providing a minimum age for employment, regulation of hours and conditions of employment, and imposing penalties or sanctions to ensure the provisions are effectively enforced.[7] States are required to protect children from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse[8], from trafficking[9], and against any form of exploitation that prejudices a child’s welfare.[10] Furthermore, States are required to implement penalties for abuses[11] and to take measures to promote the physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of children that are considered victims of “neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts” in order to promote the “self-respect and dignity of the child”.[12] According to the CRC, State parties are required to implement child protection measures to ensure the government fulfills their commitment. As of June 2017, Indonesia is the only ASEAN member State to launch a National Action Plan on Business & Human Rights.[13]

[1] Akap is a Filipino term that means “to embrace”.
[2] “Situation Review of Children in ASEAN: A report by UNICEF to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations” (December 2007), online: UNICEF < https://www.unicef.org/eapro/Asean_book.pdf > [UNICEF, “Situation…”].
[3] ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (entered into force November 21, 2015) at art 1(a), online: Interpol <https://www.google.ca/?gws_rd=ssl#q=asean+convention+on+human+trafficking+interpol >
[4] UNICEF, “Situation…”, supra note 8 at 9.
[5] See CRC, supra note 9 at arts 32, 34, 35, 36, and 39.
[6]Ibid at art 32.
[7]Ibid.
[8]Ibid at art 34.
[9]Ibid at art 35.
[10]Ibid at art 36.
[11]Ibid at art 32.
[12]Ibid at art 39.
[13] FIHRSST, “Indonesia publishes National Action Plan on Business & Human rights; first to launch NAP among Asian countries” (25 June 2017), online: Business & Human Rights Resource Centre < https://business-humanrights.org/en/indonesia-to-develop-a-national-action-plan-on-business-human-rights#c159131 >.

The Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) and Human Rights Education

Katerina Lagassé By Katerina Lagassé
The Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) of the Ateneo de Manila School of Law facilitates an internship program that provides an opportunity for Ateneo law students to gain experience in human rights advocacy and alternative lawyering. This program provides students with an understanding of the “vulnerable sectors of Philippine society”.[1] Throughout the year, different batches of students participate in the internship program. There are three main activities the Semestral Break Internship program (two weeks), the Summer Internship program (2 months), and the Graduate Internship Program (yearlong).[2] Subsequent to the internship, students continue to support the program and the centre by generating activities and research that supports human rights advocacy.[3] The summer program is unique because it includes a week-long immersion in an Indigenous community that is followed by an internship placement at human rights groups around the country. The mandate of these organizations ranges from addressing issues related to the environment, children, Indigenous peoples, urban poor, women, fisher folk, detention prisoners, and migrants (to name a few).[4] Each placement allows students to gain an invaluable hands-on experience that exemplifies the barriers that exist to access to justice and the importance of alternative lawyering in the Philippines context (and abroad).

In Atty. Marlon J. Manuel’s article “Lawyer with the Poor”, that is reproduced in the Training Manual for Paralegals (and interns), he deconstructs the concept of alternative lawyering. For Atty. Manuel, it is a form of lawyering that uses legal tools and works through the legal system to address social issues, but is not limited to solely providing legal aid.[5] Alternative lawyering is distinct from traditional conceptions of human rights lawyering in that it focuses on “economic, social and cultural rights rather than on civil and political rights” while “seek[ing] to effect societal change”.[6] This form of practicing the law requires understanding the precarity of social relationships and circumstances that perpetuate injustices and necessitates working with the marginalized not for them.[7] Atty. Manuel’s legal career reflects this philosophy and practice which the interns were able to witness in the documentary on the struggle of the Sumilao Farmers before commencing their internships.

Prior to departing on the immersion, students undergo the basic orientation seminar and read the Training Manual for Paralegals. During the seminar, presentations by different specialists provide a framework to understanding Human Rights in the national context. This year, the presentations included: Alternative Lawyering (Atty. Anmau Manigbas, AHRC), Legal Aid and Client Interview (Atty. Kenjie Aman, ALSC), Children’s Rights (Atty. Nica Yan, AHRC – AKAP), Refugees, Statelessness and Internally Displaced Persons (Atty. Anmau Manigbas, AHRC), The Environment and Human Rights (Usec. Ipat Luna, Department of Environment), Peasant Farms Section and Agrarian Reform, Human Trafficking – Modern Day Slavery (Atty. Vida Verzosa, International Justice Mission), Women’s Rights and Gender Sensitivity (Atty. Nayie Caga-ana, Urduja-AHRC), Indigenous Peoples’ Rights (Atty. Ma. Vicenta De Guzman, PANLIPI), Criminal Justice System (Atty. Iyok Abitria, HLFA), and Justice Reform in the Philippines  – Hustisya Natin (Atty. Tonet Ramos, Alternative Law Group).

Atty. Ma. Vicenta De Guzman’s introduction to Indigenous Peoples rights in the Philippines and the organization PANLIPI demonstrated the importance of providing paralegal trainings to Indigenous and other rural communities. In particular, PANLIPI supports and empowers indigenous communities to gain control of their Ancestral Domain and maintain their self-determination. These forms of training provide community members with the tools required to advocate for their rights and understand the legal framework which effects their rights. Each presentation contributed to unpacking the concept of alternative lawyering in the Philippines and how this form of legal practice creates valuable social networks and empowers people to advocate for their rights. The immersion experience as well as the internship placement will be carried by the students throughout their professional career regardless of what legal stream they decide to follow – as attested to by past interns and the AHRC team.

[1] Training Manual for Paralegals, A publication of the Ateneo Human Rights Center (2010), p. 101.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid at 6.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid at 8.

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.

Overseas Filipino Workers in the Middle East

By Lia Bellefontaine

After being in Manila for more than a month, I can’t help but notice that most people have a family member living abroad. In fact, the Filipino population is spread all around the world. According to a 2011 report done by the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, almost 10.5 million Filipinos live abroad, 43% of which are temporary foreign workers.[1] That means that more than 10% of the country’s population is living abroad. Some call these Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) the “new heroes” of the Filipino economy. They make many personal sacrifices to move abroad and often work in unfavorable conditions. Since many of them send a large part of their income back home to their families and communities, they have become the second highest source of foreign income into the Filipino economy.[2]

The issues faced by Female OFWs are vast. There is evidence of high occurrences of sexual, physical and mental abuse. Female OFWs have been subjected to human trafficking and sold as commodities between one employer to another. A large part of Female OFWs are domestic workers, who are highly integrated into the home of their employer, so they may have very little access to communication with the outside world. Their hours are often long, working all day and all night.  Many organizations, both governmental and non-governmental, have worked to try to keep OFWs safe from the exploitation and abuse of their employers. The challenges of protecting a population under the jurisdiction of another country are burdensome. However, following recent events, the threat of exploitation comes from a different source: the Philippine authorities in foreign countries.

On June 21, 2013, three OFWs accused an officer of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, of institutionalized sexual exploitation. These women had sought refuge in safe houses for distressed migrant workers set up by the POLO. Normally, the POLO and the Department of Foreign Affairs pays for repatriation to Manila. However, according to the allegations, the POLO officer required these women to pay for their repatriation with sexual favors. This scheme has been dubbed “sex for flight”. The OFWs in Riyadh are at a particularly high risk of abuse since the Saudi Arabian government has decided to crack down on undocumented OFWs, forcing thousands of OFWs to set up camp outside the Philippine Embassy, waiting for repatriation.

Although this story has attracted attention in Manila, this is not the first time that an OFW has come forward with allegations of sexual abuse committed at the hands of Philippine diplomatic officials.  There have also been disclosures of sexual exploitation of distressed workers by labor officers in the Philippine embassies in Jordan, Syria and Kuwait.

Last weekend, Philippine Officials and Ambassadors from Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Saudia Arabia, Qatar, Oman, The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon were ordered back to Manila for a consultation. More recently, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has expanded the investigation to include diplomatic posts in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

The consultations were held in order to gather information on the allegations and identify preventive and corrective measures. In a press release, the Department of Foreign Affairs outlined the long-term goal of strengthening the One-Country Team Approach to diplomacy and inter-agency cooperation. Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) was asked to do a presentation on gender sensitivity for these diplomats. It was difficult to decide what approach should be taken in a situation where the abuse seems to be so systematic, almost institutionalized. We decided to educate them about their duties as diplomatic officials to protect women from abuse and discrimination, which seemed more appropriate considering the severity of the accusations.

The AHRC handles an incredible diversity of human rights work, including grass roots involvement, research and education, litigation and policy and legal reform. This is but one example of the many very interesting experiences that I have been exposed to. Since the center is made up mostly of lawyers, in the heart of the most prestigious law school in the Philippines, they are in a key position to promote human rights at the international and domestic level, however, it is always an upwards struggle.

 

Mrs. Burgos’ search for her son

2011-Luke-BrownBy Luke Brown

Only two things will stop me. Finding my son, or I die. So I’m not going to stop.” – Edita Burgos.

Last week, I had the privilege of seeing Edita Burgos speak. In the past four years, Mrs. Burgos has led a tireless campaign in an attempt to answer the question: where is her son, Jonas Burgos?

Four years ago Jonas was dragged from a Manila restaurant in broad daylight by four men and one woman. He was thrown into a van and hasn’t been seen since. The abductors were not wearing masks, and the licence plate of the van was fully visible. This is typical of enforced disappearances in the Philippines, where agents of the State brazenly abduct people accused of participating in the communist insurgency (but who generally, at most, only have connections to left-leaning groups). Jonas is a farmer-activist.

Edita Burgos speaks at the Ateneo de Manila University law school, Manila, Philippines, Friday, June 17, 2011.

Mrs. Burgos sought justice through all the official channels, filing complaints with the police and the national Commission on Human Rights (an independent investigatory agency). When this led nowhere, she sought relief through the Court of Appeals of the Philippines, and finally the Supreme Court, which ordered the Commission on Human Rights to perform a full investigation into Jonas’ disappearance, citing major lapses in the police and military investigations into the matter.

In March of this year, this Commission released its report, in which it found there was enough evidence against the military to recommend laying criminal charges against several military officers and the former police chief for arbitrary detention and obstruction of justice.

So Mrs. Burgos is soldiering on. Two weeks ago she filed a complaint with the Department of Justice, asking for charges to be laid against the officers. Sadly, she will now have to wait even longer. In cases of extrajudicial killings (a related phenomenon to enforced disappearances), it takes on average 7 months from the filing of a complaint for the DOJ to lay charges.

This is a good illustration of how slow and cumbersome the domestic legal remedies are.

But this case is also an illustration of the amazing and tireless work that many human rights advocates in the Philippines (including the Ateneo Human Rights Center, where I’m volunteering) are doing to address the phenomenon of enforced disappearances.

I met Mrs. Burgos at a presentation she delivered through the Ateneo Human Rights Center. Her story is so compelling, local playwrights even wrote a one-act play about her.

Despite the painfully slow pace of the official investigations, Mrs. Burgos is undeterred. She is fiercely committed to finding her son. As she told me, “only two things will stop me. Finding my son, or I die. So I’m not going to stop.”

For more information, visit this siteThis article describes Jonas’ abduction.

Remembering the desaparecidos

By Luke Brown

My work so far in the Philippines has centred on extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances (EDs), picking up on the work that Chris Maughan did last year with the Ateneo Human Rights Center.

This past week (29 May – 4 June 2011) was the International Week of the Disappeared, an event initiated over 20 years ago by civil society organizations in Latin America. The purpose of the week is to remember the victims of, and shed light on the problem of, enforced disappearances worldwide. This is a major problem that persists in the Philippines.

An ED is when agents of the state, or private individuals working with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the state, abduct a person for political ends. The person (a “desaparecido”) is denied due process rights, and the state generally denies all knowledge of their whereabouts. Sometimes the victim will resurface weeks later, still alive. Other times they will never be seen again.

Victims of ED in the Philippines are generally accused of having links to the New People’s Army, the outlawed military wing of the Community Party of the Philippines (although membership in the Communist Party itself is legal). The government here has been engaged in a protracted counter-insurgency effort against communist rebels for the past 40 years.

However, generally the victims of ED in the Philippines have no link to any armed groups. More often they are simply associated with left-leaning civil society organizations, farmers’ unions, trade unions, or other grassroots organizations.

It’s difficult to measure the scale of the problem. The highest estimate comes from the human rights organization Karapatan, which reported 204 cases of ED from 2001-2009. There hasn’t been a single conviction for these crimes.

Despite widespread criticism from local and international organizations, including from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or abitrary executions, the Philippine government has been slow to respond. On an official institutional level, the greatest progress has arguably been made by the Supreme Court of the Philippines, which has been quite outspoken on the need to take action. In recent years, the Court also crafted two procedural safeguards for victims of EDs and ELKs (although the effectiveness of these safeguards is questionable). I’m currently helping the Ateneo Human Rights Center put together a compilation of domestic and international caselaw on EDs and ELKs, to be used by the Philippine judiciary.

Last week I attended an event in Manila to commemorate the International Week of the Disappeared. This event brought together civil society groups as well as members of the human rights office of the police. It was quite heartening to see such passionate human rights advocates come together – many of whom whose friends or family members had been subjected to an ED – to vocally denounce this practice. (The image above comes from Task Force Detainees of the Philippines.)

However, this event was also a reminder of just how strong the “culture of impunity” is here. EDs are not a secret in the Philippines. They are a well-recognized problem with deep roots in the state’s counter-insurgency strategy. This problem is openly debated by the government, civil society organizations, human rights groups, the military, police and the judiciary; yet progress towards addressing it remains painfully slow.

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