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

“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

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.