December 11, 2008

Celebrating Human Rights Day

Each year, on Dec 10, we pause to commemorate Human Rights Day. But there is not a single day in the whole year when the life-and-death struggle for the defense of human rights is not being fiercely fought in many corners of our country, nay, all over the world.

In the Philippines, the defense and promotion of human rights is a daunting task that exacts a high price, even the supreme sacrifice of giving one’s life, from not a few courageous human rights workers and advocates. But the herculean effort has won many gains and victories and has, on the whole, frustrated the fascist oppressors’ designs. It is worthwhile to highlight certain landmark endeavors that have helped to stave off, though not completely, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in 2007 and 2008.

One of them is the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT), second session on the Philippines, held in The Hague, the Netherlands in March 2007. Derisively dismissed by Malacanang as a “kangaroos court”, the PPT found both Philippine President Gloria M. Arroyo and US President George W. Bush, Jr. and their respective governments as responsible for gross and systematic violations of human rights, economic plunder and transgression of the Filipino people’s sovereignty.

It was not a verdict based on whimsy or sheer political bias. The PPT was deluged with documentation and testimonies of victims and experts such that the eminent array of jurors led by François Houtart – a renowned sociologist and scholar who was himself an expert for the Vatican Council II and one of the initiators of the World Social Forum - staked their names and reputations on the watershed case.

Also in 2007 was the breakthrough effort of the Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines spearheaded by the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) and participated in by the Catholic Bishops Conference (CBCP) Commission on Ecumenical Affairs. With the unstinting support of US churches, the delegation went on a speaking tour and lobbied parliamentarians in North America. The group also submitted a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to intensify international pressure to stop the killings in the Philippines.

The visit of UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Philip Alston, in February 2007 was remarkable in that it elicited the full cooperation not only of the human rights victims, their families and the organizations that support them but also that of the Arroyo regime. When Mr. Alston’s damning final report was presented to the UN Human Rights Council six months later, the Philippine delegation could only defensively brand the report as “inaccurate, highly selective and biased.”

We quote here some highly revealing portions of the Alston report that may have provoked the Arroyo regime’s vitriol, to wit:

“In some areas, the leaders of leftist organizations are systematically hunted down by interrogating and torturing those who may know their whereabouts, and they are often killed following a campaign of individual vilification designed to instill fear into the community. The priorities of the criminal justice system have also been distorted, and it has increasingly focused on prosecuting civil society leaders rather than their killers.

“The military is in a state of denial concerning the numerous extrajudicial executions in which its soldiers are implicated. Military officers argue that many or all of the extrajudicial executions have actually been committed by the communist insurgents as part of an internal purge… but the evidence that (the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army or CPP-NPA) is currently engaged in a large-scale purge is strikingly unconvincing. The military’s insistence that the ‘purge theory’ is correct can only be viewed as a cynical attempt to displace responsibility.”

The legal battles to defend progressive parliamentarians, leaders and organizers of militant cause-oriented organizations as well as consultants and publicly known leaders of the communist-led National Democratic Front – maliciously lumped together by government prosecutors in numerous criminal cases – have also achieved significant victories. The celebrated case of the late Cong. “Ka Bel” Crispin Beltran and the “Batasan 5” that sought to pin them down on charges of rebellion along with CPP founding Chairperson Jose Maria Sison and 44 others is now one for the books.

Apart from dismissing the case as without merit, the Supreme Court rapped government prosecutors for they had “not only trivialized the investigation but lent credence to the petitioners’ claim that the entire proceeding was a sham.” Judge Romeo T. Capulong, lead counsel for the defense in the Beltran et al case said that it will be more difficult, in the future, for the government to file trumped-up rebellion cases against political activists – a usual practice of the government especially under Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez.

Finally, there is the October 2008 decision of the UN Human Rights Committee, the body monitoring governments’ compliance to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), on the complaint filed by relatives of murdered human rights leader Eden Marcellana and peasant leader Eddie Gumanoy with the assistance of Karapatan*. The two were abducted and later summarily executed in 2003, allegedly by soldiers under the command of General Jovito Palparan, a notorious human rights violator who has yet to be brought to justice.

In a 12-page report, the committee said the Philippine government violated the following in the Covenant: the right of violated persons to effective remedies and the State ensuring that such remedies are provided and enforced; the right to life of every person; and the right to liberty and security of persons. It said further, "In the present case, though over five years have elapsed since the killings took place, the State party's authorities have not indicted, prosecuted, or brought to justice anyone in connection with these events."

These victories of the human rights movement in the Philippines spring from the blood, sweat and tears of the martyrs and unsung heroes of the Filipino people’s indomitable struggles for freedom, justice and democracy, past and present. They attest to the historically proven lesson that only through united and collective action can the people defend, uphold and promote their rights against their oppressors and exploiters. #

* Karapatan, the Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights is in the forefront of the fight for human rights in the Philippines with scores of its leaders and workers killed or under threat of arrest and physical attack.


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