RP Worst Place to Be a Human-Rights Lawyer

Oct. 31, 2006

Foreign delegates at a recent gathering of lawyers in Davao City bewailed the continued killings of activists and the harassment and other threats being faced by lawyers who take the cases of the poor and those who suffer from abuses of the state. Davao Todays Cheryll D. Fiel reports.

Delegates to the IAPL last month. (Davaotoday.com photo by Cheryll F. Diel)

DAVAO CITY — “I believe this is one of the worse places to be a human-rights defender.”

The remark was made by Jo Dereymaeker, a lawyer from Belgium, during a recent press conference here that culminated a recent gathering of an international organization of lawyers.

The sentiment was shared by Rafael Jespers, another Belgian lawyer who was shocked by the spate of killings of activists, human-rights defenders, journalists, even lawyers. “It’s incredible that this can happen in the Philippines,” he said.

Dereymaeker and Jespers were two of the lawyers from the International Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL) who came to the city early this month along with 60 other lawyers from different parts of the Philippines for their biennial congress.

While the delegates from other countries shared different ways of practicing their profession the Belgians said they were focused on social rights for immigrants and workers the situation in the Philippines and in such countries as Brazil, Turkey and India are similar in that lawyers in these countries give particular attention to defending human rights.

The Filipino lawyers at the forum shared their predicament, how “people’s lawyering” has proven to be more daunting than ever. They complained of having been harassed, put under surveillance, or facing picket lines in support of their clients.

Many of them, particularly in the Cordilleras and Central Luzon, face cases themselves because of their defense of human rights while the military would sometimes put them on its “order of battle,” a veritable hit list that has included the names recently of two Mindanao lawyers — Beverly Musni and Connie Brizuela.

Musni had to take a leave from her work as a labor arbiter with the National Labor Relations Commission sometime in June this year after noticing that motorcycle men had been tailing her.

Brizuela reported receiving a threat through a text message telling her that she would be “the next.”

Musni and Brizuela are officers of the Union of People’s Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM), an organization of lawyers that has been consistently handling cases involving human-rights abuses by state security forces.

These lawyers serve poor peasants and Lumads who would seek their assistance each time the military leaves behind a trail of abuses as soldiers come around their villages.

The UPLM lawyers have also been defending political activists now in jail.

The group has also opposed laws enacted by the Arroyo government which they deem to be contrary to basic democratic principles. When President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared Presidential Proclamation 1017, for instance, the UPLM fearlessly called it the “latest and most arbitrary display of arrogance in power.” It said the President used the proclamation to perpetuate herself in power.

The Filipino lawyers at the IAPL congress took the gathering as an opportunity to tell the international community about how dire the situation has become in the Philippines in terms of human rights.

They told the international delegates that at the rate the killings are going, these are now considered state policy.

They viewed the creation of Task Force Usig and the Melo Commission two bodies supposedly tasked to investigate these killings as an attempt to cover the states responsibility in these muders.

They rued the absence of civilian supremacy and the breakdown of the rule of law, especially in areas of conflict where the military takes liberty to do whatever they were ordered to do in the name of counter-insurgency and at the expense of human rights.

They bewailed the fact that, according to them, the principal targets of the governments counter-insurgency program are no longer the combatants from the New Peoples Army but members of open and legal organizations, those who take part in mass struggles and human right swork.

“We know now what’s going on in the Philippines,” said Dereymaeker in response. He said his colleagues in Belgium may eventually work toward influencing the foreign business community into reviewing its policies relating to the Philippines when it comes to aid and investments. (Cheryll D. Fiel/davaotoday.com)

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