“Human rights do not have the universal application that would be desirable because they do not flow from the universal power of the human being, but only from the power that one part now exercises over the whole. If even the most elementary claims to the governing of one’s own body are trampled underfoot in all latitudes, then we can speak only of aspirations yet to become rights. Human rights do not pertain to the past, they lie ahead in the future, calling our intentionality, sustaining a struggle that is rekindled in each new violation of humanity’s destiny. For this reason, every protest in favor of human rights has meaning because it shows the powers that be that they are not omnipotent and that they do not control the future.”—Excerpt from the Seventh Letter, Letters to my friends, Silo.

December 10, 2017, Sunday. International Human Rights Day. Youth groups. Lumads and representatives of different indigenous groups. Priests and nuns. Members of various leftist and civil society groups. Farmers and representatives of other sectors of society. Artists. Human rights activists… Thousands of militants took to the streets in Manila and other cities nationwide to demonstrate against the deteriorating human rights situation in the Philippines.

The different militant groups gathered at the Bonifacio Shrine, lit torches and marched towards the Peace Arch in Mendiola near the Presidential Palace. They carried placards and banners decrying the extrajudicial killings in the war against drugs, protesting the crackdown on activists and the impending extension of martial law in Mindanao. They burned an effigy of President Duterte and expressed their concerns as human rights workers have been allegedly killed for helping threatened communities.

The protest marches, Eucharistic celebrations, and candle-lighting events all converged in one main message aimed at calling the attention of the public to human rights violations and the policies of the Duterte administration: Stop the killings. Stop human rights violations. “Fight tyranny”.

As a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as enshrined in the Constitution, the Philippines is bound to uphold fundamental human rights. But as one of the protest groups, Kabataan, said in a statement, “It is clear that even while laws exist to lay the foundation of our rights and freedoms, they are not safeguards that will completely protect the people from state-perpetrated violence. Laws do not ensure the protection of our rights; continuous struggle does.”

Demonstrators called on the government to resume peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines—New People’s Army, which was recently declared a terrorist group. For the group, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), justice for all human rights victims during martial law and all victims of “continuing human rights violations and state fascism” remain a central issue. The burial of dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani and the restoration of the Marcos family to power “threatens efforts for meaningful indemnification of human rights victims”. Another issue is the immediate release of more than 400 “unjustly detained” political prisoners. Putting a stop to “the militarization of the countryside” is the third issue. And lastly, they call for “an end to impunity in the war on drugs as the death toll rises and as state agents are emboldened by presidential pronouncements.”

According to another group, Karapatan, they have documented 113 victims of political killings, 81 victims of torture, 54,573 victims of threat, harassment, and intimidation, 364,617 who have suffered due to indiscriminate firing and aerial bombing, and 426,170 internally displaced due to forced evacuation. These figures only reflect data voluntarily given to its monitors and human rights workers. And this is in addition to around 13,000 drug pushers and addicted killed in the war on drugs, a figure that the government disputes.

With the termination of the peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines, the President has threatened other left-leaning groups.“Duterte labels revolutionaries terrorists but it is Duterte himself who sows terror with his extrajudicial killings, illegal arrests, harassment of legal activists and mass murder of 13,000 drug suspects in his bloody drug war,” said Anakbayan National Chairperson Vencer Crisostomo.

Just recently, some human rights monitors and peasant organizers have been killed or have been subjected to arbitrary detention, political prisoners released on humanitarian grounds have faced re-arrest, and some clergy members have been killed by members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) or by unnamed killers.
According to Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay, “Peasant leader Apolonio Maranan was killed in Davao City on November 26. A human rights defender and a peasant activist were killed on November 28, followed by the killing of a Catholic priest in Nueva Ecija and a pastor in Mindoro Oriental then Eight T’boli and Dulangan Manobos in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato on December 3. Most recently, a leader of a fisherfolk organization, Aldrin Sese, was gunned down in Masbate on December 8 and yesterday, the lifeless body of youth cultural worker Bernardo Clarion was found in Davao City, after reports that the house he was in was raided by soldiers,” she added.

Duterte has threatened to bomb Lumad Indigenous People’s schools and they have faced mass displacements and a food blockade resulting from the Armed Forces’ anti-communist counterinsurgency in the areas where they live.

Since he took office in 2016, Duterte’s pronouncements against human rights activists have been well documented. Feeling that he has been unfairly criticized for his “war on drugs”, Duterte alleged that human rights organizations criticized his drug war while protecting alleged criminals. “When it comes to criminals, [human rights organizations] will proclaim, ‘human rights violations’ [to protect them],” Duterte said. He warned that human rights organizations may face criminal investigations for criticizing his anti-drug campaign. “One of these days, you human rights groups, I will also investigate you. That’s the truth. For conspiracy,” Duterte said.

Duterte previously threatened to kill human rights defenders in December 2016, allegedly for fostering drug use in the country. He followed that up a month later by warning that he would extend his anti-drug campaign to the lawyers of alleged drug users and dealers. His call on police to consider human rights advocates legitimate drug-war targets is a sinister escalation in his rhetoric, Human Rights Watch said.

“President Duterte’s threats against human rights activists is like painting a target on the backs of courageous people working to protect the rights and upholding the dignity of all Filipinos,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. “Duterte should retract his reprehensible remarks immediately before there is more blood on his hands.”

The National Commission on Human Rights Chairman, Chito Gascon, also earned Duterte’s enmity by publicly criticizing the scale of the “drug war” killings as “unprecedented” and saying that the death toll had overwhelmed the commission’s capacity to adequately investigate them. Gascon has also warned that a government failure to stop the killings might prompt an investigation by the International Criminal Court, of which the Philippines is a member.

Efforts to seek accountability for drug-war deaths have gone nowhere, Human Rights Watch said. The Philippine National Police Director-General, Ronald dela Rosa, has rejected calls for a thorough and impartial investigation of the killings as “legal harassment” and said it “dampens the morale” of police officers. Duterte and some key ministers have praised the killings as proof of the “success” of the anti-drug campaign.

Duterte and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre III have tried to justify their disregard for the rule of law and due legal process for “drug personalities” by questioning the humanity of suspected drug users and drug dealers. “Duterte is on notice that his death threats against human rights advocates could pave the way for prosecution for crimes against humanity,” Kine said. “Duterte’s assault on accountability highlights the urgent need for an UN-led international investigation into his drug-war slaughter.”

On the other hand, Presidential Spokesperson, Harry Roque, during the observance of Human Right Day, countered Human Rights Watch (HRW) latest criticisms of the government’s “lack of “genuine efforts to seek accountability for drug war abuses”. He said that HRW has “a penchant for playing blind, deaf and dumb.”
Regarding the HRW statement, “There have been no successful prosecutions or convictions of police implicated in summary killings despite compelling evidence of such abuses,” Roque said these remarks from the HRW were “simply off track.”
“Perhaps this HRW must be reminded that an entire police force in Caloocan was relieved because of alleged abuses, and the PDEA (Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency) was designated to be the lead agency in the government anti-drug operation,” he said. “Lest we forget, as much as due process governs the cases of alleged victims, the same must likewise be accorded to state agents accused of being perpetrators.”
Also, during International Human Rights Day, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque reiterated that President Rodrigo Duterte was committed to uplifting the lives of Filipinos, in particular, the poor and marginalized sectors. He stated that the Duterte administration “works hard with the best interest of every Filipino”, as the Philippines is an active member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and respect for human rights is enshrined in the 1987 Constitution.

“The Duterte Administration works hard with the best interest of every Filipino, especially the poor and the marginalized and most vulnerable, as its main concern,” Roque said in a statement. “These are the women and children in crises situations, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, migrant workers, older persons, people and communities displaced by natural and human-induced calamities, among others. ”

“The best way to do this is to ensure government efficiency and effectiveness that will translate to every Filipino getting a fighting chance to overcome poverty, to uplift one’s status in society and to live a life with higher dignity,” Roque said. “That direction is what inspires the government’s compliance with its human rights obligations. As a Nobel Peace Prize winner once said, ‘Poverty is the absence of human rights’,” he added. Roque also stated that the government was happy that UNHRC “unanimously accepted and commended” the Outcome Report on the Philippines’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) this year.

Against this backdrop, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) launched a consultative caucus with civil society organizations (CSOs) last week. Its objective is to find means for “direct and effective” government action to address violations, including those committed under President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. The CSO-CHR Consultative Caucus for Human Rights (C4HR) aims to be “an inclusive, strategic, and collaborative response to the pressing human rights and social justice issues.”

“We will leverage the complementary roles of the CHR and CSOs to pursue common objectives through active, consultative, and inclusive engagement; mindful of the constitutionally-guaranteed independence and autonomy of the CHR, and the diversity and independence of civil society,” the caucus said in a statement last Thursday, December 7.

Objectives include raising public awareness of human rights, coordinating action among stakeholders to promote and defend these rights, and upholding the 1987 Constitution. It will also endorse evidence-based data on human rights violations to the CHR and other law enforcement agencies.
Launched before International Rights Day, CHR Chairperson Chito Gascon said that he welcomed this initiative as it will foster “more regular mechanisms of dialogue and partnership.” “We look forward to making this mechanism more institutionalized and we take the goals and objectives seriously,” he added.

Human rights organizations have long been subjected to threats because they they continue to call attention to alleged violations in Duterte’s bloody anti-drug campaign. The threats have come even from the President himself who threatened to have human rights advocates shot for “obstructing justice.”

Rosa Trajano, Secretary-General of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA), said they will continue to work against violations in spite of the threats. “As human rights defenders, naghahanda kami at nag-aaral na protektahan ang aming sarili. But we will not stop, promise iyan and challenge – na kahit sino pa ang magpahinto sa aming kilos, hindi kami hihinto lalo na ngayon na malakas kami kasi sama-sama kami,” she said. (“As human rights defenders, we are ready and we are learning how to protect ourselves. But we will not stop, that’s a promise and a challenge – whoever wants to stop us, we will not allow them to especially now that we’re stronger because we’re acting together.”)