Human Rights – For Who?

This speech was delivered at a vigil for victims of martial law in the Philippines, held on December 12 after the International Human Rights Day in Toronto.

Good morning. I’m with CPSO Toronto, an organization of Filipinos and non-Filipinos who stand with the Filipino people’s movement for national liberation and democracy.

December 10th is the International Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Western countries such as the United States and the land we’re standing on right now, so-called Canada, pride themselves on being stewards of human rights. However, today, I want to ask you the question: human rights for who? 

How do farmers and peasants in the Philippines have rights when they do not make enough to eat? When they are persecuted for practising traditional farming practises such as bungkalan, and when land defenders are red-tagged and killed for attempting to stand up for their rights? 

Peasants and farmers live on land owned by landlords and are paid below subsistence wages – the average monthly income of sugarcane workers was estimated to be between 1500 to 2000 pesos a month – roughly $45 canadian. Many workers who organize and advocate for their rights are victims of red-tagging or extra-judicial killings. The Philippines has been called the “worst place for land and environmental defenders in Asia” – over 200 land defenders have been killed in 2021. Meanwhile, Canada continues to exploit the Philippines for resources through mining corporations and produce companies. 

How do Filipina women, especially those who are LGBTQ, have rights when they face violence from US military personnel who get off scot-free for murder and sexual assault? When they are forced to migrate for economic reasons due to the labour export policy and face violence and sexual harassment from their employers with impunity? 

In October 11, 2014, 26 year old Jennifer Laude was murdered by Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton. He was 19. In court, his defense was that he didn’t know that Jennifer was trans, and had his sentence reduced to only 6 to 12 years in jail. Duterte himself pardoned Pemberton in 2020. He had only served less than 5 years of his final 10 year sentence. 

Under the Visiting Forces Agreement, military personnel such as Pemberton are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government rather than the courts in the Philippines, where they can refuse to detain or arrest them, or hand out shortened sentences or even pull them from the country. Duterte repeatedly reneged on promises to end the VFA and instead extended it, allowing US military personnel to get away with violence against women. 

Filipina women are disproportionately represented in the migrant worker population, comprising 56% of the 2.2 million overseas Filipino workers, compared to the 61% of all 4.3 million workers who are men. Many of them work as domestic workers and caretakers, treated as nannies and servants, with no recourse against their employers who sponsor their visas.

How do the people have rights when they are silenced? When activists are routinely red-tagged and killed, jailed in cramped cells during a pandemic or disappeared without a trace, on the US government’s dime? 

On November 6th, Steve Abua, a peasant organizer, was kidnapped on his way to a meeting. Videos and pictures of him being tortured were sent to his wife and comrades, but no official response had been made, even though two military intelligence officers were alleged to have been looking for him on the day of his disappearance. 

This is an all-too-common occurrence in the Philippines, where activists are often called communists and killed by the AFP, or have firearms or drugs planted on them to manufacture reasons to arrest people who speak out, shuffling them around different prisons so their friends and family do not know where they are.

December 10th is also the anniversary of the establishment of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, or NTF-ELCAC, the mechanism Duterte uses to red-tag and silence the opposition. AFP troops often train with the US military and between 2016 and 2019, the U.S. provided $554 million in military aid to the Philippines to facilitate this.

I’m here today to tell you that while the problems of US imperialism, of semi-colonialism and semi-feudalism, of bureaucrat capitalism still plague the Philippines, the rights of the people will never be safe. But the people have the right to resist, to determine their own future, to protect their own survival.

CPSO stands with the Filipino people in struggle. 

Long live international solidarity.

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