Philippines Targeting Religious Leaders

December 06, 2012

Testimony to the U.N. Human Rights Council

By The Rev. Michael Yoshii
Pastor of the Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, CA and Co-chair of the CA-NV Annual Conference Philippine Solidarity Task Force 
 
The United Methodist General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) was among four entities endorsing a recent statement that raises awareness of an alarming trend of extrajudicial killings of religious leaders in the Philippines. The statement was presented at the 21st session of the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in September.
 
Besides GBCS, the joint statement was signed by the World Council of Churches (WCC), Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA-WCC) and the Indian Council of South America (CISA).
 
Dr. Rommel Linatoc of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) spoke on behalf of the signers.
 
Linatoc told about four religious leaders killed in the past two years. He said their deaths have been part of an alarming trend of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines since 2001.
 
Shared an advocacy ministry
 
Two of the recent killings involved indigenous community leaders affiliated with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, a member of the NCCP. These were Rabenio Sungit, killed Sept. 5, 2011, and Jimmy Liguyon, killed March 2, 2012.
 
Two foreign nationals serving the poor and marginalized in Philippine society were also killed in the past two years: Fr. Fausto "Pops" Tentorio, a Roman Catholic missionary priest of Italian nationality was killed Oct. 17, 2011; William Geetman, a Dutch lay missionary, was slain July 3, 2012.
 
These four religious leaders shared in common a ministry of advocacy for environmental justice. They were especially active in defending the rights of indigenous peoples against the aggressive development interests of the mining industry in their communities.
 
The joint statement from GBCS, the WCC and their partners was part of an oral intervention in response to the Philippine government's human rights report to the United Nations.
 
I attended the 21st session of the UNHRC in Geneva, Switzerland as co-chair of the California Nevada Conference Philippine Solidarity Task Force and as a member of the Isaiah Circle of the General Board of Church & Society's United Nations & International Affairs ministry.
 
Lip service from government
 
The session heard a final report from the Philippine government on its human rights policies as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations. The UPR is required of all member states.
 
The UNHRC had met in May for an initial report on the Philippines UPR. Input was provided from member states and civil society groups.
 
In this final report, presented by H.E. Teofilo Pilando, deputy executive secretary vice minister of the Office of the President, the Philippine government acknowledged the trend of extrajudicial killings. The government fell short, though, in documentation of data and follow-up in the criminal justice system.
 
The report gives the appearance that positive steps are being taken when lip service is merely being employed.
 
KARAPATAN, a human-rights organization in the Philippines that has been monitoring the abuses, has reported that out of 364 cases of extrajudicial killings since 2001, only 1.37% has been solved as of Aug. 21, 2011 — and this includes only cases audited among the more than 1,000 reported extrajudicial killings since 2001.
 
The data demonstrates that the government has consistently failed to press charges and arrest perpetrators of these human rights abuses. As perpetrators remain free and go unpunished, they continue to be part of a network of continued repression. State authorities have yet to arrest several notorious and well-known human rights violators, among them Maj. General Jovito Palparan, who is wanted for the abduction and disappearance of two student activists.
 
Extrajudicial killings
 
Extrajudicial killings had been publicly exposed both in the Philippines and in the international community during the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but with little remediation.
 
With the election of Benigno Aquino in 2010, human-rights advocates had hoped for a significant change. Unfortunately, they have been disappointed.
 
Marie Hilao-Enriquez, chairperson of KARAPATAN and co-chair of the Philippines UPR Watch, travelled to Geneva for both the May and September UNHRC sessions. She provided grassroots testimony for the review.
 
In her oral intervention at the September session, Hilao-Enriquez lamented, "We are worried that extrajudicial executions, disappearances and other human-rights violations persist under a so-called democracy and even under the so-called righteous path taken by our new President, 'Noynoy' Aquino."
 
99 victims
 
KARAPATAN has documented 99 victims of extrajudicial executions during Aquino's administration between July 2010 and June 2012. She sadly reported the killing just the week before the UNHRC session of Genesis Ambason, an indigenous peoples leader. Ambason was killed in a brutal manner in Agusan del Sur, Mindanao, by paramilitary groups under control of the Philippine military.
 
Hilao-Enriquez pointed to the government's counter-insurgency program as being at the heart of the repressive conditions affecting the Filipino people. The counter-insurgency program called Oplan Bayanihan creates the framework for targeted killings, which is then supported by a climate of impunity.
 
The impunity is sustained through the Philippine government's alliance with the U.S.'s "war on terrorism." Since 2001, the Philippines has been the primary ally in the Asia Pacific region for the U.S. war on terrorism. It has received significant funding for its efforts.
 
In the meantime, economic interests, especially those of the mining industry, have taken free reign to make the lives of the indigenous poor expendable, along with those who dare to speak on their behalf. As perpetrators go free, they continue to execute their plans under Oplan Bayanihan.
 
Human rights advocates are calling instead for a resumption of peace talks that will serve the best interests of the whole society.
 
Let the Stones Cry Out
 
The 2009 NCCP book, Let the Stones Cry Out — The Continuing Search for Justice provides an in depth analysis and documentation of the ecumenical involvement in addressing the pattern of human rights abuses in the Philippines. The book references Matthew 10:16-20 in describing the ecumenical efforts to bring concerns to the international forum at the UNHRC beginning in 2007:
 
Look, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves; so be cunning as snakes and innocent as doves. Be prepared for people to hand you over to sanhedrins and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for my sake. But when you are handed over, do not worry about how to speak or what to say. What you are to say will be given to you when the time comes, because it is not you who will be speaking, the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you.
 
As advocates continue to give voice to the Spirit in the highest places of international decision-making, we also pay homage to colleagues who have now been added to the roll call of martyrs in the ongoing quest for justice and peace. May the remembrance of their lives give rise to increasing voices speaking truth to power on behalf of the poor and marginalized in the Philippines.
 
Editor's note: The Rev. Michael Yoshii was part of the Philippine Universal Periodic Review Watch delegation for the 21st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. He co-chairs the California-Nevada United Methodist Church Philippine Solidarity Task Force. Yoshii's attendance at the UNHRC meeting was accredited by the General Board of Church & Society's United Nations Office in New York.
 
The delegation was led by Marie Hilao Enriquez of Karapatan. It included Dr. Rommel Linatoc of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, Melona Daclan of Defend Job Philippines, and Maribel Mapanao of the International Coordinating Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICCHRP), which is based in Europe.