The Philippine People Are Under Attack from Washington — and Their Own
A tribunal this year uncovered grave violations against the human,
economic, and cultural rights of Filipinos by Washington and their own
By Vanessa Lucas and Azadeh Shahshahani,
3 December 2015.
The Filipino people are under attack.
The Lumad, for example — an indigenous group in the southern Philippines
— are being forced to leave their ancestral lands and the source of
their livelihood to make way for mining operations and land conversion.
Resistance is deadly.
In the month of August alone, there were two massacres that left nine
dead. On August 30, the army and paramilitary forces occupied the
Alternative Learning Center for Agriculture and Livelihood Development,
an award winning school for indigenous youth. The director of the
school, Emerito Samarca, was taken by force and was found dead in a
classroom the next day. He had an ear-to-ear slit across his throat and
gunshot wounds in his chest.
The same day Samarca’s body was found, Dionel Campos — the chairman of a
Lumad organization campaigning against mining — and his cousin Datu
Juvillo Sinzo were executed in front of hundreds of residents in Lianga.
Sinzo, who was separated from the crowd, was tortured by paramilitaries.
They smashed his arms and legs with a wooden stick before shooting him.
Karapatan, a Filipino human rights organization, has raised the issue of
the Lumad peoples at the United Nations Human Rights Council. But given
the culture of impunity in the Philippines — often exacerbated by
implicit support from the U.S. government — activists are pursuing other
means to hold the perpetrators of crimes like these to account.
To help give voice to the victims of human rights violations, for three
intense days this summer we participated in the International People’s
Tribunal on Crimes Against the Filipino People. The tribunal was
convened in Washington by human rights defenders, peace and justice
advocates, lawyers, jurists, academics, people of faith, and political
activists. It was held at the behest of victims of human rights
violations to shine a spotlight on official crimes and hold the
responsible governments accountable.
Evidence supporting the allegations of rights abuses — including
testimony from over 30 lay and expert witnesses — was provided to an
international panel of prosecutors led by former U.S. attorney general
Ramsey Clark and considered by an international group of jurors from a
range of disciplines. The tribunal found the Aquino regime responsible
for systematic violations of the civil, political, economic, social, and
cultural rights of the Filipino people. The conveners also held the U.S.
government responsible on account of its military intervention, economic
and environmental exploitation, and imposition of neoliberal
globalization on the Philippines.
Here’s what we learned.
Violations of Civil and Political Rights
The first group of charges focused on gross violations of civil and
political rights, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances,
massacres, torture, and arbitrary arrests and detention, as well as
other brutal and systematic attacks on the basic democratic rights of
the Filipino people.
A key driver of the most egregious abuses has been the U.S.-inspired
counter-insurgency program Oplan Bayanihan. Launched in 2011 by
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, it’s supposedly a program to
fight communist guerillas, but in practice doesn’t distinguish between
civilians and combatants. The reality is that Oplan Bayanihan is used to
target any individuals or groups the government classifies as a threat
to its agenda.
Amaryllis Hilao Enriquez, a former Marcos-era political prisoner,
described Oplan Bayanihan as a “repackaging” of the U.S.-led “war on
terror” for the Philippines. The operation was devised with the help of
the U.S. government, which provides technical assistance, military aid,
and occasionally actual U.S. military personnel.
Following Enriquez’s testimony, the jurors heard personal accounts of
gross human rights violations.
Maria Aurora Santiago, for example, recounted the death of her partner,
Wilhemus Geertman — a Dutch lay missionary who was targeted by the
Philippine military due to his involvement in peasant organizing and
advocacy. He was the executive director of Alay Bayan-Luson, a
grassroots organization involved in disaster preparedness, mitigation,
and victim assistance, especially to poor communities. Geertman was also
involved in numerous environmental campaigns against mining, logging,
and dam projects. Accused of belonging to the New People’s Army — the
armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines — he was shot to
death in his office by military and police assets.
Attorney Maria Catherine Salucon, a founding member of the National
Union of People’s Lawyers, then opened the jurors’ eyes to the fact that
even lawyers working on human rights cases are subjected to open
harassment and intimidation. Like Geertman, Salucon — who represents
clients in cases involving violations of human rights and political
prisoners — has been subjected to red tagging and vilified as a member
of Communist Party.
One day, Salucon and her paralegal William Bugatti had lunch with
relatives of their detained political prisoner clients. During the meal,
Bugatti told Salucon that he was taking precautionary security measures
and advised her to do the same. Later that night, he was gunned down by
government security forces.
After learning of Bugatti’s death, Salucon was told by a client — a
civilian asset for the Philippine National Police — that the PNP was
investigating her to “confirm” that she was a “red lawyer.” Salucon also
learned she was being secretly followed by military intelligence
officers. Salucon took the matter to the courts and was granted a
protective order that allowed her access to military records pertaining
to her, but the military continues to deny conducting any surveillance
activities against her at all.
Melissa Roxas, a Filipina-American activist, then testified concerning
her May 2009 abduction and torture at the hands of Philippine military.
She was captured while conducting health surveys organized by a social
Roxas, who has also conducted fact-finding missions into rights abuses,
and two Filipino volunteers — John Edward Jamdoc and Juanito Carabeo —
were abducted by approximately 15 men armed with high-powered rifles,
some of them wearing ski masks or bonnets. They were handcuffed and
blindfolded and forced into a van.
Roxas was held for six days at a military camp, most of which she spent
in handcuffs and blindfolded, and accused of belonging to the New
People’s Army. She was subjected to food deprivation, forced into stress
positions, beaten, choked, suffocated with plastic bags, and repeatedly
smashed headfirst against a wall. She was lectured on the evils of
communism by torturers who threatened her with death and tried to force
her to sign documents confessing that she was a militant. Despite her
ability to describe some of her abductors and torturers in court, no one
has been arrested or charged for her abduction and torture.
Violations of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights
The second group of charges concerned an array of abuses against
Filipinos’ economic, social, and cultural rights — especially through
the imposition of neoliberal economic policies, various attacks on the
livelihoods of ordinary people, the transgression of their economic
sovereignty, and the destruction of the environment.
The scope of these violations was put into perspective by economist Jose
Enrique Africa, who presented an overview on the general socio-economic
situation of the Philippines. Notably, he pointed out, around two-thirds
of Filipinos — some 66 million people — are poor, living on just $2.80
or less per day. However, the wealth of the 10 richest Filipinos has
more than tripled under the Aquino administration.
While ordinary Filipinos struggle to make ends meet, foreign investors
favored by the government are making out like bandits. Foreign
investment makes up 40 percent of approved investment in the Philippines
over the last decade and a half, he said — not even counting dummy
corporations that would increase those numbers. According to Africa, the
equivalent of some 98 percent of domestic production is exported for the
benefit of foreign firms and economies. Trade and investment
liberalization have made the Philippines one of Asia’s most open
economies while destroying its national wellbeing.
Mining companies in particular boosted their profits some 115 percent
between 2010 and 2014. Yet the Philippines doesn’t benefit from its
mineral resources. In the last five years, dozens of communities and
thousands of families have been temporarily or permanently displaced —
often violently — to give way to mining projects, especially in Mindanao.
Despite the Philippines’ rich natural resources and large, productive
labor force, the country has become a service and trading economy more
than a producing economy. The manufacturing sector, at a little under a
quarter of gross domestic product, has contracted to as small a share of
the economy as it was six decades ago. And agriculture, at 10 percent of
GDP, is the smallest it’s been in history. The result has been
widespread joblessness and poverty.
Africa noted that the U.S. is the biggest foreign investor in the
Philippines, and American corporations often dominate local firms.
Unsurprisingly then, U.S. corporations are among the biggest direct
beneficiaries of the neoliberal economic policies favored by Washington.
For example, the Philippine government has hailed the creation of 1
million jobs in the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector,
especially call centers. However, BPOs are dominated by foreign
investors, with U.S. companies alone providing up to 31 percent of
Another example lies in the country’s drive towards privatization, which
is likewise supported by the U.S. Power privatization has made
Philippine electricity the most expensive in Asia, even more so than in
Japan or South Korea. Water privatization has made its water the third
most expensive after Japan and Singapore. According to Africa, U.S.
firms account for 45 percent of the Philippine electric power system’s
imports and 10 percent of its water equipment and services imports.
Among the U.S. government’s more egregious interventions, Africa
testified, is the Arangkada Philippines Project, or TAPP. Funded with $1
million from USAID since 2010, the project has lobbied Philippine
policymakers on hundreds of regulatory issues. Administered by the
American Chamber of Commerce and the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce
in the Philippines, TAPP is among the most aggressive entities seeking
to change the 1987 Philippine Constitution and remove the last legal
impediments to foreign capitalism in the country. Meanwhile there are at
least five other USAID economic policy intervention projects
cumulatively worth $74 million.
Following Mr. Africa, multiple witness took the stand to describe how
these investment policies have negatively affected the Filipino people —
particularly in agriculture and agrarian reform (or lack thereof), the
situation of the urban poor, the displacement of indigenous peoples,
attacks on unions and labor rights, human trafficking, illegal rate
hikes for mass transportation, the privatization of health care, and
other violations of economic, social, and cultural rights.
Rafael Mariano testified about an incident concerning Hacienda Luisita,
a landholding of more than 6,000 hectares owned by the family of
President Aquino (and the site of violent labor repression in the recent
past). Under land reforms passed in the late 1980s, Hacienda Luisita
should have been subject to redistribution to poorer farmers. Yet the
Aquino family and its allies devised a stock scheme to circumvent the
reforms. Small farmers took the case to the Philippine Supreme Court,
which ordered the redistribution of vast tracts of the land. Yet the
Philippine government’s Department of Agrarian Reform — an agency under
Aquino’s direct control and supervision — refused to comply. Instead, it
harassed the farmers and destroyed their crops and huts. To date no
actual distribution has been made.
Marieta Corpuz testified about instances of land grabbing, where
peasants and indigenous peoples are being dispossessed of their
ancestral domains to make way for foreign investment projects. For
example, the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone Freeport (APECO) project —
which was supposed to transform a town in Aurora province into a
commercial and industrial district and eco-tourism zone — is resulting
in massive dislocations of indigenous Dumagat and Agta tribes on behalf
of big businesses linked to a Philippine senator and his family. Corpuz
testified that fisherfolk, farmers, and indigenous activists who have
opposed the project have been subjected to threats, harassment, and
Violations of National Self-Determination and Liberation
A final group of charges concerned violations of the rights of the
people to national self-determination. This includes crimes against
humanity against national liberation movements and dissidents, who are
often falsely characterized as “terrorists.”
Professor Marjorie Cohn of Thomas Jefferson Law School noted that the
U.S. war of terror — though imposed in the Philippines as early as 2002
under the Gloria Arroyo regime — was officially codified in Manila with
the passage of the Human Security Act of 2007, which can be thought of
as the Philippine version of the U.S. Patriot Act. The law, which
contains an overly broad definition of “terrorism” and harsh mandatory
penalties — including 40 years imprisonment without parole for even
minor offenses that could be construed as “terrorism” — can be used to
hold dissidents indefinitely. And it allows the government to engage in
all manners of spurious prosecutions, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Obama administration, Cohn added, enlisted the Aquino government
last year to negotiate the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement — a
military basing agreement that could reintroduce U.S. troops to some of
the same Philippine military facilities they were expelled from back in
the 1990s. It has officially roped the country into the U.S. “pivot to
Asia,” an effort by the Obama administration to encircle China through
alliances with its neighbors.
“Although it gives lip service to the Philippines maintaining
sovereignty over the military bases,” Cohn explained, “it actually
grants tremendous powers to the U.S.” She added, “The U.S. also seeks to
return to its two former military bases in Subic and Clark, which they
left in 1992. These bases were critical to the U.S. imperial war in
Vietnam. This violates the well-established right to of peoples to
Dante C. Simbulan, a former college dean at the Polytechnic University
of the Philippines, convincingly argued that the adoption of U.S.
counter-insurgency techniques by the Philippine government had produced
an array of grievous rights violations.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police,
for example, receive their training in counter-insurgency from the
Americans. Various counter-insurgency operations, from Oplan Lambat
Bitag and Oplan Bantay Laya under Arroyo to Oplan Bayanihan under
Aquino, were patterned after U.S. counter-insurgency guides. Oplan
Bayanihan, Simbulan testified, is “presented in the guise of peace and
development. In reality, it is an operational guide to crush any
resistance from those who work for social justice and support the poor
and the oppressed.”
After extensive deliberations, the jury reached a verdict of guilty on
all three counts.
The tribunal called on the defendants to stop the commission of illegal
and criminal acts, to repair the damages done to the Filipino people and
their environment, compensate victims and their families for atrocities,
and rehabilitate communities, especially indigenous communities, who
have been gravely affected by the acts of the defendants.
Considering the serious violations of international law by the
defendants, the tribunal also called for violations to be brought before
international bodies, including the International Criminal Court, as
well as the Inter-American, European, African, and Asian regional courts
in order to expose the defendants and stop their impunity.
It is time to hold the perpetrators of serious human rights violations
against the Filipino people accountable.
Vanessa Lucas is a partner at the law firm of Edelstein & Payne in
Raleigh, North Carolina. Her practice focuses on civil rights and
employment law. Lucas, who is chair of the National Lawyers Guild
Philippines Subcommittee, participated as a member of the convening
group for the International Peoples Tribunal on Crimes against the
Filipino people on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild.
Azadeh Shahshahani (@ashahshahani) is a human rights attorney based in
Atlanta, Georgia and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild. In
July 2015, she took part in the International Peoples Tribunal on Crimes
against the Filipino people as a member of the jury.