IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: The difficult human rights By Ayesah Abubakar

PENANG, Malaysia (MindaNews/18 Nov) — It was the first conference organized by theSoutheast Asian Human Rights Studies Network (SEAHRSN). Last October 14-15, at least 300 HR students, scholars, activists and workers came together to present their work and ideas and learn from each other. It was also my first human rights conference. The conference discussed the newly introduced ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) as a mechanism within ASEAN that presents many possibilities for human rights work. At the same time, its limitations also reminds us how much more hard work needs to be done in order that we can make the ASEAN states cognizant of their responsibilities in not just promoting, but moreso, of enforcing human rights and human rights laws in this region.

It is a given reality that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its many covenants have yet to be fully implemented by many governments. However, the developments in international law and human rights standards are steadily growing and gaining acceptance. An example is in the issue of Right to Self Determination of Indigenous Peoples. While it may be true that there is no international law that clearly supports this, nonetheless, it is well pronounced in various human rights instruments, e.g. civil and political rights, cultural rights, rights to development, etc.

One of the conference presenters, an international lawyer, gave several examples of cases brought to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. This possibility seems rather more of a mirage in a desert. All the more it makes the challenge enormously difficult when we do have an AICHR that cannot litigate cases. Where do we bring our case anyway? Directly to the UN? A friend reacts by saying, that “by the time we bring a case to the UN, more people would have been dead already.” Accessing the UN is another climb to Mt. Everest in itself. And yet, it is a real option that we should take.

In Mindanao, we are never short of human rights advocacy to help protect our marginalized sectors — Indigenous Peoples, women, children, OFWs, farmers, and many more. Unfortunately, advocacy work is not enough. It is in the area of human rights litigation we need more serious work. While litigation is such a messy and burdensome work, it is, however, the crucial work that will enforce our human rights amidst the environment of powerlessness. If we want to be heard, we should be prepared to bring our cases to the courts. And if our Philippine courts cannot deliver us justice, then, we would have to go to the international courts.

Another problem in human rights work is the reality check — if we do have a pool of human rights lawyers who are willing to take this challenge. Maybe not. However, at the SEAHRN conference, I was actually pleasantly surprised to have met quite a big number of young lawyers and students in social sciences and law from Ateneo de Davao and Manila, and UP Law in Diliman and Manila. Somehow, they give me hope that they might have imbibed human rights work, and that they will discover this as a new calling. I was also happy to know that one of those who successfully worked hard for the establishment of the AICHR happened to be a fellow Dabawenyo, Mr. Carlos Medina. I am sure many more younger lawyers and students can be inspired to become like him!

The work of human rights, just like the field of peacebuilding, is enormously difficult! For one, people who are in this field are often accused of being idealists! But if we lose that idealism, aren’t we also giving up hope on humanity itself? Therefore, as idealists, we can never give up. Instead, we should increase our tribe! We should encourage more youth to be idealists and to take up the difficult work of human rights.

(“In the Neighborhood” is Ayesah Abubakar’s column for MindaNews. Ayesah is the coordinator of the Mindanao Peace Program at the Research & Education for Peace University Sains Malaysia or REPUSM in Penang, Malaysia.)