By: Inga Jaekel
The Philippines is a country of incredibly beautiful nature and friendly, open and warm-hearted people. It is alarming to see how the current political and societal situation is not improving and rather worsens the situation of human rights defenders. This results not only from the lack of justice and fair politics, but also the low threshold for violence in general. The Philippines has ratified eight of the most important international human rights conventions and since 2011 is a member of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. In the second review of the country under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process before the UN Human Rights Council in May 2012, the Philippines accepted 66 out of 88 recommendations to improve the human rights situation. However, the country continues to struggle with many political problems, as family clans and feudalistic structures prevent the development of a healthy social and political situation. Many international NGOs are based here to “help” to improve. But what does that mean and how can the “industrialized world” try to achieve Western standards in a country that is affected with an ongoing series of natural disasters which result in more and more poverty, lacking basic living conditions in some areas, such as water, toilets, and food, and where large areas are controlled by rebel groups? Moreover, should Western standards even be applied at all, mirroring the former colonial power dictating a lifestyle that lead to destruction of the country’s own rich culture? Acknowledging the difficulty of that question, it is nonetheless imperative that Human Rights be granted and protected by the state.
Examples of Human Rights cases in the Philippines
1. Temogen “Cocoy” Tulawie – an indigenous HRD from the Sulu area – which is situated on Mindanao – an area that is mostly populated by Muslims and Indigenous People (IDPs) is a well known HRD. Cocoy took a stand against the injustices of the government, perpetrated in particular by the former governor of Sulu, Abdusakur Mahail Tan, who is currently holding the office of vice governor under his son, who took over the governor position. Tan didn’t like the way Cocoy criticized his politics, so he alleged Cocoy to be involved in trumped-up crimes. One of those trumped-up charges was a bomb attack in 13 May 2009, due to which Tan and some people of his escort were injured. Cocoy has been incarcerated for this and additional fabricated charges of attempted murder ever since, even though none of the witnesses is able to give any evidence against him. There is only one witness alleging Cocoy to be the mastermind behind the attack in question. That witness is Sali Said, a member of the terrorist Abu Sayaff group and the one who actually placed the bomb, as evidence shows. Due to a witness protection program, Said is now free and back in Sulu, where it is very likely that he is operating with the Abu Sayaff still, kidnapping and killing people. Due to other charges against him, he has not taken a stand to testify. So far Cocoys involvement could not be proven by the prosecution. The hearings in the case are finished and the jugde is about to make a decision, which is likely to be presented in the beginning of 2015.
2. Then there is the HRDs organization called TFM (Task Force Mapalad) whose members are mostly sugar cane farmers from Negros, fighting for their right to have their own land. In 1988 an agrarian reform law passed. In the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (commonly known as CARP), all lands exceeding seven hectares were bought by the government and sold to the landless farmers. The program expired in June 2014 and not even half of the land is distributed by now. Not only that some of the farmers who applied for the land titles (CLOA) never received them due to delaying tactics of the Department of Agrarian -Reform (DAR), those who indeed have managed to secure the titles have difficulties to actually receive access to their land. Often the landowners or their private security guards won’t let the farmers pass and rather threaten them and their families. Unfortunately, the government is not willing or not able to help the farmers.
3. Equivalent to the TFM group on Negros there is a HRD organization called PADATA in Mindanao, who deals with the same land issues.
4. Another example is the journalist who is receiving death threats because he was criticising some political decisions in his radio show. Or another HRD who is in jail because of her alleged membership of a left wing rebel group and therefore is facing trumped-up charges against her. Especially the persecution of left wing activists, because they are officially considered as communists and therefore as being violent and dangerous for the people, is very common in the Philippines.
However, there are plenty of other issues as well, such as the criminalization of Human Rights Defenders, mining, land grabbing, illegal logging, poverty etc. All of these issues deal directly or indirectly with human rights violations. The need for protection measures, as formulated by the UN Declaration on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, becomes clear when one considers the many threats to which the latter are regularly exposed in the Philippines. The spectrum of forms of repression and serious human rights abuses ranges from illegal house searches by security forces, threatening phone calls and intimidating text messages and intensive surveillance measures, through criminalization by defamation and fabricated charges and house demolitions, to death treats, abductions, and murders.
Most of the serious human rights violations are committed by police officers, members of the military, or members of paramilitary groups controlled by the military. These violations occur especially in the context of the protracted domestic conflicts with the communist New People’s Army (NPA) and with the various armed groups of the Muslim independence movement in the south of the Philippines. Furthermore, commercial interests in land are often closely linked with those of the military and politicians. A large proportion of the land available for agriculture and mining is owned by a small number of wealthy families or is controlled by multinational corporations.
The victims of human rights violations are those who pose a threat to the ruling elites, especially to their position of power. Politically motivated extrajudicial killings are numerous in the Philippines. Victims are on the one hand political activists who address the grave social injustice and widespread poverty in the country and call for wide-ranging political and economic reforms. On the other hand, they are journalists who uncover the illegal activities of politicians or civil servants. Although the media in the Philippines enjoys a high level of freedom of expression, the country has been among the countries with the highest numbers of murders of journalists.
The Philippines is ranked third with the most unpunished murders of journalists – surpassed only by Iraq and Somalia. The biggest problem of those human rights cases is the impunity in the country. Anyone who has influence and wealth in the Philippines can order killings and enforced disappearances without ever having to fear a criminal conviction. Witness protection is deficient and effectively nonexistent. Potential witnesses do not cooperate with the judicial authorities out of fear – time and again, witnesses are also killed. The absence of witnesses is therefore also the chief obstacle to the prosecution of human rights violations. People here do not believe in the rule of law, because it does not exist in their daily lives. Due to case overload and lack of judges, many cases are not touched for several years. Furthermore, judges and prosecutors are bribed or arrest warrants against certain people are simply not executed. The cases that actually successfully come before the court are generally drawn out for years and demand a high frustration tolerance and enormous financial resources. That obviously leads to the situation that a lot of people do not file cases because they know it is highly unlikely to achieve a successful outcome for them. The threshold for violence is very low. Not only because of the lack of prosecution, but because it has become part of the daily life in many areas.
Just recently, there were two bomb detonations in busses in our direct neighbourhood within the time period of one month. Those are considered as acts of terrorism, although the area we live in is officially a “low danger” zone. 10 people were killed and 42 were wounded, most of them children coming home from school. Incidents like this are a daily occurrence in this country. This requires a general change of thinking of all, especially the official authorities to achieve a better life for the people, and, of course, a better situation for Human Rights Defenders.