Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Norma Dollaga: Doing Human Rights in the Philippines as a Church amid Shrinking Democracy

Today's piece is written by Norma Dollaga, a deaconess from the Philippines Annual Conference of the Manila Episcopal Area - Philippines Central Conference. Her episcopal appointment is at Kapatirang Simbahan Para a Bayan (KASIMBAYAN) / Ecumenical Center for Development.

The violation of human rights did not start when people, rising against tyranny or oppression, were persecuted, tortured, imprisoned, disappeared, harassed and killed. It began when the powerful few accumulated, stock-piled and privatized the resources, wealth and property of the people and calcified their strength through social-economic-political order. Laws, colonization, wars of aggression, and prison cells were later harnessed to ensure power.

The inception of human rights violations came when foreign colonizers violently occupied our lands and made us their slaves. When our ancestors rose and revolted, the colonizers mis(used) and exploited laws, religion, and their political system to justify their assault against those who dissented or resisted. The laws and the rules that they invented labelled the revolutionaries as plain bandits and criminals, so they were punished and executed.

In the Philippines, the centuries-old hacienda and feudal bondage is the main reason why the farmers go hungry even during the harvest season. At present, nine out of ten Filipino farmers do not own the land they till compared to seven out of ten landless farmers twenty years ago.[1] The minimum daily wage in the Philippines is P537 (USD 10.74), while the estimated family living wage is P1,022 (USD 20.44). The minimum wage may be legal, but the wide gap manifests the violation of economic rights.

Human Rights and the Duterte Regime
The human rights situation in the Philippines is worsening. Violations have been further aggravated amid a climate of impunity. The impact of the Duterte administration’s anti-narcotics program, counterinsurgency campaign, and its efforts to implement and enact policies that undermine its commitments to international and domestic human rights framework are among the stark indications of this spiraling situation. Extrajudicial killings (EJKs), enforced disappearance, illegal arrests and detention, torture, forcible evacuation and other rights violations were committed with impunity against families, communities, and human rights defenders (HRDs) in the course of the implementation of these policies.[2]

KARAPATAN, a human rights group, reported that between July 2016 and November 2021, there are 470, 647 cases of forced evacuation, 424 victims of extrajudicial killings, and 1,159 cases of illegal arrest and detention. Political prisoners were slapped with trumped-up charges, in many instances, using planted evidences. They are justice and peace workers, activists and community organizers who have devoted their most precious time, talent and life serving others.

Rise Up for Life and For Rights, a network of families of victims of the War on Drugs and church-based human rights advocates reported, “Over five years of Duterte’s so-called ‘War on Drugs’ have glaringly bared its inherent anti-poor and anti-people design. Duterte’s brazen ‘Kill, Kill, Kill’ policy provided carte blanche permission for state forces and other agents to commit extrajudicial killings, mostly of Filipinos in urban poor communities. The impunity is evident in the death toll: from government reports of 6,215 victims in police operations (as of 31 October, 2021) to as many as 30,000 per human rights groups estimates.”

Even before COVID, Pres. Duterte has been flaunting extravagantly a terrorizing threat. In his second year in the office, he threatened to arrest the communists and their legal fronts: “‘You're terrorists and even your legal fronts are terrorists, I know, …’ said Duterte in a speech in front of soldiers in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija.”[3]

This rhetoric has legitimized increased violence. He ordered the soldiers to shoot female rebels in their vagina.[4]

The institutionalization of the Whole-of-Nation Approach is a counter insurgency campaign that dealt a heavy blow to human rights work and human rights defenders. According to Esperanza de la Paz, “The ‘whole-of-nation approach’ (or WONA) being bannered by the AFP as the ‘new paradigm’ that would ‘end the local armed conflict’ or the ‘communist insurgency’ … institutionalizes and declares the government’s total abandonment of its commitment to and obligations in implementing the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (CAHRHIL) and in forging basic political, social and economic reforms that would address the roots of the armed conflict and bring about a just and lasting peace.”[5]

Human Rights in the Time of Covid
The pandemic has further aggravated and exposed tyranny and fascism. The pandemic has only intensified the hardship of the marginalized, increased the braggadocio of the authorities with tyrannical cover, and has exposed the inhumane, anti-poor, anti people character of the state in responding to and managing the current health crisis.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has marked the Philippines as exhibiting a “toxic lockdown culture” in response to the pandemic.[6] Thousands have been arrested and detained for violation of confinement measures linked to the pandemic. The Philippines topped the list among countries that declared emergency, with 120,000 apprehended for curfew violations in the past 30 days.[7]

The weaponization of the law has exacerbated the narrowing of democratic spaces. The Anti Terror Law, swiftly passed at the height of pandemic, mocks the very fundamentals of the Constitution. Several groups have questioned the constitutionality of the law, including individuals from churches and church-related organizations.

One Faith, One Nation, One Voice, an ecumenical network for truth, justice and peace, opposed the Anti-Terrorism Act 2020 on multiple grounds, including “an overly broad and amorphous usage of the term ‘terrorism,’ which will surely be utilized by state forces for attacks on dissent and curtailment of human rights and civil liberties,” “a weakening of the judicial system and the constitutionally enshrined function to check-and-balance the actions of other branches of government, including state forces under the executive branch,” and “a removal of financial penalties to be awarded to persons detained under false pretense as well as other safeguards against abuse by police officers and soldiers, thus increasing the likelihood of gross impunity to be committed by state forces.”

Continuing Challenge to Church
Red-tagging, maligning and persecution of prophetic voices in the Philippines continue. The democratic space and the mission and ministries of the Church with poor and marginalized communities are endangered. Activists and persons associated with left-leaning views and organizations are being tagged as suspected members of “terrorist groups.” Organizations and institutions with long and credible histories/record who are engaged in humanitarian service work with the vulnerable have been subjected to scrutiny and malicious tagging, calling them front organizations of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) or New People’s Army (NPA).

Doing relief work used to be a “safe” ministry. You would not get into trouble if you give soup to the hungry. Today, you become a suspect, and you can even be jailed.

We are witnesses to the weaponization of the law that was used to harass, persecute and punish the faithful ones, seeking to defend the rights of the poor and pursue the cause of JUSTICE.

Human rights violations are innate to the power block in society’s structure to achieve and perpetuate its goals. It uses military might to sustain its power founded on exploitation, oppression and violence. It weaponizes the law in order to threaten, harass, and imprison the dissenters. If legal measures are not enough, human rights defenders become victims of torture, enforced disappearance and extra judicial killings.

The very foundation of structure and system that is unjust and oppressive must be replaced by a system where “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24)

The Church needs to fulfil its prophetic role to denounce injustice, to proclaim the gospel’s wisdom, to work for ethical alternatives to poverty and the sufferings of the many.

The church like The United Methodist Church faces challenges as it chooses to serve the people. There is an attack on church only because it is doing what it needs to do in defense of the poor and of people’s dignity. The church work is to promote peace and human rights, it is not to defend itself but to defend the flock against oppression and exploitation.

Democracy is always at risk under an authoritarian rule. The church can either speak out prophetically or be an accomplice to the authoritarian rule.

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