By Juontel White, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
ILRF recently co-sponsored an event highlighting human rights violations in the Philippines. The discussion was titled, “Defending Human Rights in the Philippines: A Conversation with Leading Legal and Legislative Advocates” and was also sponsored by Amnesty International and Katarungan, Philippine Center for Peace, Justice and Human Rights in the Philippines.
Panelists Neri Colmenares, representative of the Bayan Muna party in the Philippine Congress and Rex Fernandez, legal counsel of Karapatan: Alliance for the Advancement of Peoples’ Rights shared details about their work in advocating for the rights of Filipino people within the context of a highly militant Philippine government.
Colmenares explained how he was victim of the government’s harsh brutality and inhumane treatment when at age 18 he was arrested after participating in a peaceful rally as member of the Student Catholic Action of the Philippines (SCAP). The Philippine National Police tortured him—physically and mentally—for nearly a week. He was electrocuted, beaten, burned with cigarettes and was even engaged in Russian roulette. “This treatment was typical,” says Colmenares. He continued saying that because he was young, his treatment was relatively lighter than what other detainees received.
According to Fernandez, for several years the Philippine government has established a pattern of blacklisting citizens as enemies of the state; scientists, journalist, and student activists are just some examples of those citizens added to such a list.
As ILRF has reported in the past, many trade union leaders and members have killed or assaulted by militant police. For instance, in 2005 the Centre for Trade Union and Human Rights reported 226 cases of anti-union violence, an 86 percent increase from the previous year when seven labor activists were shot dead for taking part in a strike. The event has come to be known as the Hacienda Luisita Massacre. This is just one of the many violent cases in which the local government has sought to prevent strikes to keep the interests of foreign investors, all at the cost of workers.Brutal force is the government’s most typical response to strikes, despite if peaceful and any other act deemed anti-government . Innocent victims, like Colmenares, have been prey to such treatment. The Human Rights Watch details examples of such brutality in this report.
A prime example is the case of Melissa Roxas, the ¬first US citizen under the Obama administration to have been abducted, illegally detained, and tortured in the Philippines while on a medical mission in the province of La Paz, Tarlac. Fernandez served as legal counsel for this case and there was sufficient evidence suggesting that Philippine military officials were the suspects. However, the judge failed to prosecute and forbade Fernandez from further investigating.
When lawyers like Fernandez file cases on behalf of victims, there is often a failure for justice to be upheld. This is primarily because the Philippine government is notoriously corrupt and lacks an effective judicial system to try the human rights violations its own military often commits. Though human rights lawyers like Fernandez often point to the Philippine government as the culprit of the extrajudicial killings, the government has adamantly denied this claim.
The Philippine government has implemented several measures to decrease extrajudicial killings; however, according to Colmenares, all have been insubstantial. The first measure was the Melo Commission, responsible for investigating the killings. However, while the commission often investigated violations, it failed to prosecute and was inherently flawed because commissioners were also government officials, serving under the office of the president . The second measure, the Writ of Amparo, served as only judicial action rather than a legislative or civil procedure. Investigators often pointed fingers at random suspects rather than conducting a targeted investigation.
Another measure was the implementation of human rights seminars in Philippine military training programs. This is particularly ironic because human rights seminars would presumably be effective for offenders and potential offenders of human rights. The Philippine government has persistently contended that its military was not involved in human rights violations—so why would what of establishing such workshops? Here, there seems to be an implicit admission to brutality against humanity.
According to Amnesty International more than 1200 Filipino people have been killed under the Presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Legal advocates like Colmenares and Fernandez argue that the international community must pressure the Philippine government to adopt a human rights bill. In addition, because the Philippine armed forces receive a majority of its weaponry from the United States, it was suggested the U.S. forbid the exchange and use its influence to ensure the rights of Philippine people are protected.