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Global Human Rights Issues

JOANNA K. CARIÑO (Philippine)

Ms Joanna Cariño, is winner of Gwangju Prize for Human Rights 2019. She has been at the forefront in the struggle against human rights violations in the Northern region of the Philippines. From the Martial Law era up to the incumbent presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, she has valiantly fought for the rights of the ethnic groups in the Cordillera region who are victims of forced displacement, extrajudicial killings, harassment, and other forms of human rights abuses perpetrated by the state.

The Gwangju Prize for Human Rights – The Solidarity Bridge Between the Philippines and Korea

This year, as we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the May 18 Democratic Uprising of Gwangju, the world is faced with numerous challenges for human rights defenders. We see the reappearance of authoritarian regimes in many countries with a contempt for human rights, such that victories gained in an earlier period have suffered setbacks. This makes the work of defending democracy and human rights so much more difficult.

In addition, the whole world now reels under the threat of the COVID 19 pandemic. Many nations have locked down with social distancing as the standard response. Many international events have already been cancelled or postponed and international travel has been severely curtailed. But as we physically distance ourselves from one another to slow down and try to halt the spread of the novel Corona Virus, it is important to maintain the social solidarity of activists and human rights defenders across borders and across the seas in the continuing quest for human rights, democracy and peace. It is important to show our support for human rights defenders under attack.

In the Philippines, the dictatorial President Rodrigo Duterte continues with his violent attacks on human rights defenders. His Executive Order 70 creating the Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, with its so-called whole of nation approach, has considerably shrunk the democratic space for civil society, and has brought back the horrors of the Cold War, McCarthyism and Marcos-style martial law. He has curtailed all forms of opposition and democratic dissent, and has red-tagged legitimate democratic organizations and personalities as communist terrorists. He has weaponized the law to file all kinds of trumped up charges against the opposition and dissenters. The Philippine Congress, which he controls, is presently fast-tracking amendments to the Anti-Terrorist Law which will further restrict human rights.

The disgraceful human rights record of the Duterte regime has caught the attention of the international community. Cases have been filed in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity by the families of victims of Duterte’s deadly war on drugs, for the thousands of poor people who have been made victims of extra-judicial killings. Upon resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is currently preparing a report on the Human Rights situation in the Philippines for presentation this coming June.

As indigenous peoples are among the most hard-hit by the fascist attacks, our network of Indigenous Peoples’ Human Rights Defenders in the Philippines has prepared a Special Report on the human rights violations committed against indigenous peoples by the Duterte administration, which has been submitted to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Report cites the following violations of indigenous peoples’ rights under Duterte’s watch, with the inclusion of emblematic cases:

From June 2016- September 2019, there have been 86 extrajudicial killings and 66 frustrated extrajudicial killings of indigenous peoples and indigenous peoples rights advocates. Indigenous peoples’ rights defenders are being criminalized with the filing of trumped-up charges against them, which has caused the arrest and detention of at least 196 indigenous persons, with at least 36 still unjustly imprisoned at present. There is the systematic and institutionalized red-tagging of indigenous peoples rights defenders and their organizations, to delegitimize them before the public so that more violent attacks can be made against them. There is development aggression, or the the aggressive entry of destructive projects such as large-scale mining, mega-dams, plantations and the Clark Green City, without the free, prior and informed consent of the affected communities. Development aggression is usually accompanied by the military as an investment defense force. The indigenous peoples’ defense of their ancestral lands has resulted in the militarization of indigenous communities, to include indiscriminate airstrikes and bombings, which have caused the forced evacuation of more than 30,000 indigenous people from their ancestral lands. There is also the forcible closure of the Lumad schools, which have been their form of self-determined development to make up for historical government neglect of basic social services in indigenous communities.

Philippine human rights defenders have submitted their reports to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to aid in the preparation of her report, and are calling on the United Nations to establish a Commission on Inquiry on the Philippines to investigate and evaluate the Philippine government’s economic, political and security policies and laws in relation to the respect and protection of human rights, including the collective rights of indigenous peoples. Further, to facilitate access to justice for victims of human rights violations including indigenous leaders, advocates and communities.

This year, as we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising under increasingly difficult international and national conditions, it is all the more relevant to celebrate and keep alive the spirit of the May 18 Democratic Uprising. The collective defense of the people of Gwangju for democracy against dictatorship and tyranny is a lesson with deep and lasting significance. Idealistic youth have always played a major role in social upheavals, as it was with the democratic uprising. Students and the youth were at the forefront of the many protest actions and demonstrations which led up to the uprising. The violent reprisals against the democratic mass actions caused so many young lives. What had started as student demonstrations soon transformed into a popular resistance to dictatorship which involved the whole Gwangju community.

It is right and just that there should be a memorial of the Gwangju democratic uprising. The annual May 18 commemoration has ensured that the remembering will continue, that the sacrifices made then will not be in vain, that these will not be forgotten, and will instead serve to inspire countless others to stand up for human rights, peace and democracy. It is also right that accountability should be pursued until the whole story can be revealed.

The EDSA People Power uprising in the Philippines which ousted the dictator Marcos in February 1986 has parallelisms with the Gwangju Democratic Uprising. There is also the challenge to keep the spirit of people power alive, as with every year that passes, there is less and less collective remembering. The family of the deposed dictator has been able to come back to power using the ill-gotten wealth stolen from Philippine coffers. They are now trying to re-write history, downplay the serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and portray the Marcos martial law period in positive light. Worse, they have the Philippines president in their corner who has publicly acknowledged that Marcos is his idol. Human rights victims of the Marcos dictatorship experience déjà vu under the present dictatorial Duterte government and human rights defenders are again under attack.

Having been the recipient of the 2019 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, I humbly acknowledge that the award has been very useful in my work as as indigenous rights activist. As we persist from day to day in the difficult and often dangerous task of defending people’s rights, especially in repressive states such as the Philippines, it was gratifying for an indigenous rights activist like me to be recognized by a prestigious international institution such as the May 18 Foundation, whereas I have been criminalized and labelled as terrorist in my own country. The cash award also made a significant contribution towards the construction of my organization’s Indigenous People’s Center.

I will end this article with a quotation from my acceptance speech: Human rights make us human. With every violation of human rights, our humanity is diminished. The human spirit can take only so much oppression, however, before resistance develops. Repression breeds resistance. To stand up for human rights, to resist tyranny, and to rebel against an oppressive system is justified. But we have to prepare ourselves for sacrifice and even death in the struggle against tyrants for people’s democracy and a better world. It is honorable to stand up for democracy and to defend human rights, especially for the less fortunate and downtrodden.