Today, we in the Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao commemorate the 5th year since our founding in July 25, 2005.
We took inspiration from the Concerned Lawyers Union in Mindanao for Nationalism (COLUMN), our precursor, and from the many lawyers who offered their lives in dedicated service to the people of Mindanao under Martial Law.
We have grown from a little more than 50 founding members to more than 150 lawyers, legal workers, law students, and paralegals in major centers in the 5 regions of Mindanao.
We have strengthened our partnerships with sectoral and multisectoral organizations and have represented those who have the least in law in various judicial and quasi-judicial forums, and have walked with them in the parliament of the streets to demand justice. We have assailed policies and laws that have imperiled our people’s wellbeing, even if it meant endangering ourselves at times as human rights defenders.
We see that the context of our founding remains true 5 years hence— that an unbearable injustice is being inflicted on our people as their comprehensive human rights to food, land, shelter, education, and civil liberties are being denied and trampled upon.
Violation of the law and by the law, circumventions of due process, lack of access to judicial and quasi-judicial remedies, and the overall system of oppression and exploitation characterize the injustices that our people suffer every day.
There is great expectation for long-term reforms under the newly-installed government of President Benigno Aquino III. However, his family’s tarnished record in the Hacienda Luisita Massacre which he had consistently dodged since the campaign period until now that he already assumed the presidency, does not provide the needed confidence-building in the field of human rights.
The poor’s assertion of their economic, social, and cultural rights continue to be met with Strategic Law Suits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) cases designed to criminalize their legitimate demands for agrarian reform, rights to shelter, labor rights, and rights to ancestral domains and self-determination.
The roots of the armed conflict, especially in Mindanao, are still being addressed militaristically and with the same failed hawkish counter-insurgency approaches. Without genuinely addressing the right of the Bangsamoro to self-determination as represented by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the substantive agenda previously agreed with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, new deadlines to end the decades-old civil wars in the country have only exacerbated massive displacements and extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances of activists and civilians.
Civil and political rights continue to be threatened and extrajudicial killings have not abated. Since Aquino’s inauguration, five activists have been killed and a series of murders of journalists have visited many parts of the country.
The murderous zeal of state security agents will persist if the Aquino government will not abandon the Arroyo regime’s internal security doctrine Oplan Bantay Laya, which no less than United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston had pinpointed as the culprit in the dark human rights record of the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
This impunity which had peaked with the Ampatuan massacre in November 23, 2009, which victimized our very own Atty. Concepcion Brizuela and other human rights defenders, will not meet a decisive end until criminals in uniform and their death squads are prosecuted and put behind bars. While the appointment of former Commission on Human Rights Chair Leila De Lima to the Department of Justice is a breath of fresh air, she is definitely hard put to curb the gradual killing of key witnesses in the massacre and persistent bribery to whitewash the case.
This political will to go after perpetrators of human rights violations, including those of the Ampatuan massacre, must necessarily start with the decisiveness to prosecute Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for her sins against the Filipino people. President Aquino must faithfully live up to this people’s clamor.
Five years since our founding, we therefore reaffirm our role as legal defenders and advocates for the people.
We vow to continue upholding public interest lawyering in order to advance the interests and rights of the peasants, workers, urban poor, indigenous peoples, Moro, women, youth, political prisoners, and other marginalized sectors.
In fidelity to our founding statement, we renew our pledge to “pursue the ends of justice” for the poor and the oppressed.
Atty. Carlos Isagani Zarate