Rural Missionaries in US for 21-day Mindanao human rights mission

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (RMP-NMR/15 July 2015) The Northern Mindanao office of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP-NMR) started today a human rights mission across the United States.

The 21-day mission is expected to draw support from US-based human rights networks, mass organizations, churches, Filipino organizations, and other friends to campaigns for ecological justice and human rights issues in Mindanao. These campaigns highlight in particular extra-judicial killings and other forms of assaults against indigenous leaders and communities of the island south of the Philippines.

RMP-NMR, represented by coordinator Sr. Ma. Famita N. Somogod, MSM, flew yesterday to Washington DC together with youth leader Vennel Francis Chenfoo of Panalipdan Mindanao Youth to join anti-war activist Amirah Ali Lidasan of the Initiatives for Peace in Mindanao and human rights lawyer Angela Librado-Trinidad of the Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao.

International Peoples’ Tribunal

The team is to attend the International Peoples’ Tribunal (IPT) where Sister Somogod is to observe and give input in the proceedings concerning attacks on schools in Mindanao and the extra-judicial killings of indigenous peoples.

The IPT, to be held at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC on July 16-18, is to indict the regime of Pres. Benigno Aquino III and the US Government as represented by Pres. Barack Obama ‘for Human Rights Violation, Plunder and Transgression of the Filipino Peoples’ Sovereignty’. The Tribunal will be held at the behest of victims of human rights violations and other crimes committed under the watch of President Aquino III.

Sister Somogod and other Mission members will also join the historic march throughout Washington DC to conclude the IPT on July 20. On that day, a cultural program featuring stories of the Philippine survivors of human rights violations will be held where the serving of the IPT verdict to the Philippine Government and the US Government are to happen—in front the Philippine Embassy, and the White House and the US State Department, respectively.

Assaults against indigenous leaders and advocates

A human rights briefing with international human rights organizations about the state of human rights in Mindanao will be held in New York on July 22 and 23 where Sister Somogod will present the relentless killings directed against the indigenous leaders of Mindanao, including their defenders and advocates. The human rights briefing is being organized by CIVICUS, an international organization advocating for civic space. CIVICUS is currently coordinating this meeting with the United Nation’s Committee of Religious NGOs and the NGO Committee on Human Rights.

The case of Joel Yagao will be brought into the attention of the briefing participants that is expected to include representatives from Amnesty International, International Service for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch, among others.

Yagao is a lay co-worker of RMP-NMR arrested in September 2013 for trumped-up charges. Still currently incarcerated, Yagao is effectively hindered from doing his human rights work for the farmers and indigenous peoples of Northern Mindanao. The ‘inability’ of the state forces to present their witnesses during hearings prolong the closure of the case. A petition on-line has recently been mounted to call for his release.

Attacks on schools

The General Board for Church and Society of the United Methodist Church will organize a series of meetings with ecumenical organizations concerning attacks on alternative schools in the weeks that will follow.

Sister Somogod is to highlight during these meetings the escalating attacks on the alternative learning centers for indigenous children as documented by the Save Our Schools Network in Mindanao. The systematic forced closure of the schools and the harassment perpetrated against   the schools’ teaching and administrative personnel, including the one recently experienced by RMP-NMR staff Krystal Malaya Sagbigsal and Rhema Acenas, will be underscored.

The cases mentioned will also be presented to Ms. Diya Nijhowne, the Director of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) in a closed-door meeting in New York. RMP-NMR is a member of GCPEA, a formation established in 2010 by organizations from the fields of education in emergencies and conflict-affected fragile states, higher education, protection, international human rights, and international humanitarian law who were concerned about on-going attacks on educational institutions, their students, and staff in countries affected by conflict and insecurity.

A series of forum about schools under attack will also be conducted at Los Angeles, California by the end days of July to be hosted by the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON). This Southern California campaign to stop attack on schools will peak with a Peace Walk at Long Beach on August 1.

Awareness-raising on Lumad human rights situation

Sister Somogod and Chenfoo are also to present a Lumad human rights situationer before an ecumenical audience in New York on July 22, organized by the Episcopal Church and the Migrant Center of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. The activity is dubbed, ‘Faith Seeking Justice: Defending Human Rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Mindanao.’

NAFCON has also arranged a forum series of this kind in Chicago and San Francisco, to be attended by ecumenical organizations  and Filipino migrants in the said areas.

International campaign

‘The Mindanao human rights issues deserve to be brought out from severe isolation,” said Sister Somogod. “Aquino can’t just step down come 2016 that easy without him being held accountable for his gross human rights violations against Mindanaoans.”

The US Mission is part of the on-going commitment of RMP-NMR, along with other Mindanao-based human rights organizations, to bring into the international platform the sad plight of the indigenous communities and their defenders. “The world needs to know that terror is attacking our brethren in this part of the world, so as to compel them to help us fight impunity,” said Sister Somogod.

In November this year, RMP-NMR is set to visit European countries for the same objective. Sister Somogod will first attend the UN Business and Human Rights Forum in Geneva to highlight human rights issues resulting from extractive industries in Mindanao, before doing talks in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, United Kingdom, and other parts of Europe.

Panalipdan Mindanao Youth, for its part, will also send Chenfoo to attend the 8th Dublin Platform in Ireland organized by the Frontline International Foundation for Human Rights Defenders on November 6-11. The youth leader will share the risks faced by him and a lot of human rights defenders working for land rights in Mindanao before an international audience composed of human rights organizations, diplomats and the UN special mandate holders. (RMP-NMR)