New coalition of Human Rights Defenders in the Philippines tries to deal with killings

November 4, 2017

Last Thursday, [2 November 2017], Mga Manananggol Laban sa Extrajudicial Killings was launched.  Manlaban is broad, non-partisan alliance of lawyers and law students that is focused on stopping extrajudical killings and making sure that those responsible for EJKs are held responsible.

I am one of the convenors of the group, which includes statesmen like Senator Rene Saguisag and former UP Law Dean and prominent constitutionalist Dean Pacifico Agabin. Other convenors are Edre Olalia and Neri Colmenares of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, Dean Jose Manuel Diokno of the De La Salle University College of Law and chair of the Free Legal Assistance Group; Dean Ernesto Maceda Jr. former law dean of the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila; June Ambrosio, who heads the Integrated Bar of the Philippines National Center for Legal Aid; former congressman and human rights lawyer Erin Tañada; Commissioner Roberto Cadiz of the Commission on Human Rights; professors Victoria Avena and Roel Pulido; Rachel Pastores of the Public Interest Law Center; feminist lawyer Evalyn Ursua, and Judge Cleto Villacorta III.

Aside from prominent lawyers, student representatives from the Association of Law Students in the Philippines, Paralegal Volunteers Organization–UP Diliman, NUPL-UP Diliman, and the UP Diliman College of Law Student Government were also at the launch. The fight against EJKs needs to be scaled up. We need many paralegals for this work. We also have to link up with Church groups and other stakeholders to win this.

During the launch, I was asked how we would react if newly appointed presidential Spokesman Harry Roque would throw hollow blocks at us. I said we would throw back pan de sal. I actually wasn’t joking when I said that as we were in Kamuning Bakery, so it was the right metaphor. Both Dean Agabin and I have known Secretary Roque for decades and consider him our friend. We will not needlessly criticize him. He will have to do his job; we will do ours. But human rights definitely is not something we should fight and throw hollow blocs over. I consider convening Manlaban as a patriotic act, an act that helps the government and it helps the state in stopping EJKs.

I am glad that Secretary Roque welcomed the formation of our alliance. He has been quoted as saying we could help the government determine whether EJKs were actually taking place. We will gladly do that. But definitely we are not an opposition alliance. In fact when I was asked last Thursday if we will work to have Duterte impeached, I immediately said no. Our priority is to stop the killings. It’s not acceptable to those whose profession is the advocacy of justice to have EJKs done with immunity. In my view, EJKs are also not an invention of the Duterte administration. We have seen journalists, activists, Lumad leaders, etc. killed under the Aquino and Arroyo administrations. But the scale is different now and because the victims are the poorest in our society, they happen to be the most powerless and need lawyers the most.

There are already many initiatives to fight EJKs. Among lawyers, Centerlaw (co-founded by Roque), FLAG, NUPL, and the IBP have assisted families of victims. Cases have been filed and will continue to be filed. Manlaban will hopefully help scale up this effort. Let it not be said that the legal profession stood idle by while many of our poor countrymen were killed.

As Dean Agabin pointed out in the Manlaban launch, the war against illegal drugs is not a war because it is one sided and the poor victims are not fighting back. This point was well illustrated by the story shared during the launch by Niks Bisuña whose brother Angelo was brutally tortured and executed in a Caloocan jail (the claim is that he died of an infection which the Bisuña family denies).

Below are excerpts from the MANLABAN SA EJK Unity Statement:

“We lawyers, including law professors and judges, and law students, have banded to form an organization demanding a stop to extrajudicial killings and the escalating human rights violations. The country has been experiencing a spate of extrajudicial killings in the midst of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war” against drugs. The casualties since he took office last year reportedly reached at least twelve thousand, most of them coming from the poor communities. In a blatant disregard of the right to life, thousands of victims who are poor and powerless have been targeted and brutally, nay mercilessly, executed by the State, its agents and proxies with blatant contempt and disregard of due process.

The Duterte administration has also launched vicious attacks against individuals, groups and institutions, including international human rights advocates, that it perceives to be critical of its human rights policies which not only instill a chilling effect on, but is a threat to freedom of expression.

President Duterte’s public order for the police to shoot human rights activists if they are “obstructing justice” not only endangers human rights defenders but is an outright attack on human rights and freedoms. With violence on all fronts of Duterte’s “war,” there is deep fear indeed among the living that death will come, for virtually any one, sooner at the door.

Drugs, according to Duterte, is the main reason for crime and one of the country’s biggest problems. But the effective solution to the drug problem in the Philippines is cleaning up government of officials, including the police and politicians, who protect drug syndicates, effective prosecution of all involved especially big drug lords to dry up the supply chain, and inclusive economic development to uplift the people from penury and thus stem the demand for antisocial vices like drugs. Extrajudicial killings have not worked before and will never work now.

* * *

Members of the legal profession and law students who value the sanctity of human rights and the equitable rule of law, cannot stand idly by in the midst of these attacks on the right to life, liberty, dignity and security of the people. Today we join the ever growing voices of protest against rampant killings which target the poor, to defend rights and demand accountability.

* * *

MANLABAN SA EJK will fight for human rights especially the sanctity of life. It will help unite and bring together members of the legal profession opposed to institutionalized denials of due process and violations of the rights to privacy, presumption of innocence, and other basic rights to life, liberty and security which victimize and threaten the people and make a mockery of the democratic principles and tenets we have learned or taught.

We will do advocacy campaigns such as conduct forums or provide platforms on the issue especially in law schools. We shall also come out with statements and opinions from a legal perspective on human rights issues, join or initiate mobilizations, and use our legal skills to provide concrete legal assistance to victims and help in putting a stop to extrajudicial killings and rampant human rights violations engulfing the country today.

MANLABAN SA EJK will join forces with other sectors and groups struggling against the descent of the country into the dark abyss of lawlessness, persecution of the poor, attacks against critics and human rights advocates and authoritarian methods or rule.”

It is not a coincidence that Manlaban was launched on Nov. 2, All-Souls Day. There is unrest in the land of the souls, where many have been killed without remorse, their humanity denied and taken without mercy. Hopefully, Manlaban will give them comfort that the nightmare that led to their deaths will soon end.

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