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

Dissonance, despondency, surprise – and LGBT rights in Africa

2015 Wettstein AnnaBy Anna Wettstein

About a month and a half after my return from The Gambia, my thoughts about my trip are split in the most profound way. And so maybe my ruminations can only be expressed by a cliché and overused quote:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

I suppose any life-changing event in a person’s life is sure to elicit these sorts of emotions. I met some people who were the most gracious and welcoming I have ever met, yet at the same time some days I couldn’t muster up the courage to leave my apartment because of the dozens of men who felt entitled to my words, my time, and my thoughts. I felt, at once, supreme isolation, and a very real connection to certain people around me. I felt pride and hope about the work I and my institution were doing, and sometimes I felt our work was so hypocritical, counterproductive, and self-congratulatory that I couldn’t believe I had ever considered it worthy of changing the world in even the smallest of ways.

Now that I’m back and, with a bit more distance, truly reflecting on human rights work, I can’t say I’m less conflicted. But it’s important to channel that critical eye into something positive and productive, no matter how daunting that task seems to be.

One of the greatest moments of dissonance for me was hearing my colleagues speak about LGBT rights, same-sex marriage, and the infamous case of the American baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. I knew going there that this was a very touchy subject – homosexuality is criminalized in The Gambia, and certain acts can land you in prison for life. Generally it’s as if it doesn’t exist there, as if the famous words of Iran’s Ahmadinejad: “We don’t have any gays in Iran” actually ring true in The Gambia. So the only time I heard anyone talk about it was when the US Supreme Court decision was published, and I heard my colleagues make some (to put it nicely) very disappointing remarks.

Just a few months earlier, the Coalition of African Lesbians was granted observer status at the African Commission after a 7-year battle. When their application for Observer Status was first rejected, the Commission provided as a reason that “the activities of the said Organisation do not promote and protect any of the rights enshrined in the African Charter.” The reversal of opinion was promising for the possibility of countering discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity in Africa as it seemed to signify that the Commission was open to recognizing that the rights of homosexuals are enshrined in the African Charter. Yet just a few months later, their observer status was rescinded. One step forward, two steps back? If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, it’s heartening to imagine that the Commission would grant such status at all, even if just for a few months.

Yet a colleague of mine was there during the debates at the Commission. He told me he heard some prominent human rights activists referring to ‘gays’ as rats or vermin – I’m not sure on the exact terminology he related, but it was something equally vile. He heard some of the most educated and progressive lawyers fight to deny even the rights to life and to be free from torture based on a person’s sexual orientation. A respected friend of mine said some equally hateful things. This dissonance was striking, but I was used to it at this point.

So in my eternal naiveté and hope, when my Institution tasked me with drawing up an internal memo on litigating sexual and reproductive rights, I decided that this was my prime opportunity to argue that we should be litigating discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The arguments are solid – it would make a great case. Do I think they are ever going to do it? No, not in the foreseeable future. In fact I’m not sure my arguments and research will lead to anything positive at all because they seemed to fall on deaf ears. But I’m glad I tried.

I wish I could end this post on a positive note, but the hate I encountered left too bitter a taste in my mouth. Maybe the silver lining can be found in my surprise at my colleagues’ responses to the issue – that in almost every other way, their dedication to human rights, openness and tolerance taught me many things.

I suppose I think it’s unfortunate more than anything. At the very least, if my colleagues worked on such a case, I think their minds would be changed. I think they would be less apt to dehumanize gay people and others ostracized, beaten, and killed for their sexual orientation or gender identity on a regular basis. But maybe that would be too difficult to them – it’s hard to step out of your comfort zone, after all.

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