MANILA, JUNE 12, 2006 (STAR) HINDSIGHT By Josefina T. Lichauco - Today is the Independence Day of our beloved country. It is supposed to be the day we were delivered from a colonial master. It is therefore a day of deliverance – a day when we commemorate our freedom and rejoice that we are guaranteed our basic rights, which are enshrined in the Philippine Bill of Rights, Art. III, Section 1 to 22 of the Philippine Constitution.

It is meant to be a national day of rejoicing. For the majority of our countrymen, however, it is a day of pain and sorrow. When you see your poverty-stricken brothers and sisters on TV eating fried rats in order to survive a hunger that gnaws cruelly at their insides, while their political brothers and sisters fight over their pork barrel amounts within a political system that reeks of avarice and corruption; when you see how they are killed in regular, rapid succession, you know that this is not what your forefathers died for.

No leader has the right to violate our basic liberties. No leader should have the insolence to trample on the most sacred value of any decent society – truth. No leader can say that the "rule of law" should be upheld when the survival of that same leader depends on violating it. No leader has the right to claim divine anointment from a God we all worship when, not too long ago, that same leader apologized for what in effect was a premeditated transgression of truth; when that same God has, within the explicit confines of His Ten Commandments, ordained that we tell the truth.

More than anything, however, no leader should give mere standard orders to go after the killers of activists, to a police and military force over which that same leader exercises direct control, because the numbers have become ugly and sickening. That same leader should be outraged, should be barking out orders to a police force probably gone berserk, and give out ultimatums and deadlines. What we see is a complacency that has sickened the citizenry. An astonishing number of leaders and activists have been killed in cold blood, without fear, without mercy, as if the killers knew they would escape justice, and be exempted from the rule of law that that same leader upholds. A lot of those killed were young ones – killed before they could reach their full adult potential.

On the May 31 – under the aegis of Gabriela, a militant national alliance of women, CODAL (Counsels for the Defense of Liberties), the IBP (Integrated Bar of the Philippines), and Portia Sorority of the University of the Philippines College of Law, of which I was an active member during my student days – a forum "Asserting Civil and Political Rights Amid the US War on Terror"was held at Balay Kalinaw in the UP campus. The speakers included four visiting American lady lawyers: Tina Foster of the Center for Constitutional Rights and legal counsel for several detainees held in US military facilities worldwide, including the Guantanamo Global Justice Initiative; Rachel Lederman of the National Lawyer’s Guild, who’s won a million-dollar lawsuit against the City of San Francisco for its illegally rounding up demonstrators protesting the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles; Vanessa Lucas, of the same Guild, who has represented immigrants in various labor law, employment and civil rights cases; and Merrilyn Onisko, the Guild’s co-chair for the Middle East sub-committee.

This impressive, articulate and effective panel of lady lawyers was one in saying that their mission came to the Philippines in response to "growing international concern over the extra-judicial killings and political persecution of women’s rights activists, political leaders, members of the opposition and the Batasan 6." Soon after they left, the arrest and persecution, even the alleged torture of the Erap 5, happened.

There were two outstanding speakers from the Philippines: Prof. Vicky Avena of the UP College of Law, and Atty. Neri Colmenares of CODAL. Vicky was such a passionate and effective speaker. She did an excellent job of tracing our lamentable contemporary political history. Neri, who has always impressed me as a calm human being, waxed eloquent and passionate as he talked about the state of Filipinos’ civil liberties today. They were, to my mind, such an outstanding pair of speakers.

For that matter, Gabriela, the lead sponsoring organization, is such an outstanding alliance of valiant women, headed now by Emmi de Jesus, a Physics graduate from the University of the Philippines. Emmi and the Gabriela women are such a committed group, whose common denominator is patriotism and love of country.

Many of the women, like Emmi, are mothers and wives, and their commitment to their country is unconditional. And if Gabriela has been irresponsibly accused of being a communist organization, it is because they prioritize concern for the upliftment of the labor sector and the poverty-stricken, and for their passionate dedication to the civil liberties of the Filipino citizen. Gabriela women, like Rina, Tinay, etc., are courageous, intelligent, and extremely knowledgeable. They can pit themselves against anyone in the world.

In my short interview with them, the American lady lawyers stated that their presence in the Philippines was an affirmation of international sisterhood and the imperative for women to help each other. According to them, the presence of the mission in our country was triggered by the "deliberate constriction of public space for women symbolized by the persecution of women’s organizations and their leaders, such as Gabriela and the Gabriela Women’s Party, and Congresswoman Liza Maza, the representative of the women’s sector in Congress."

In that capacity, therefore, they heard first-hand the accounts of victims of human rights violations and their families. Finding no hope for justice, these victims continue to live in fear. The Americans also observed court proceedings and studied the legal documents and evidence against the Batasan 6, which they found baseless,and violative of the Philippine Constitution and the international instruments ratified by the Philippine government.

They were informed of the actions and positions taken by the Philippine government on the numerous extra-judicial killings and political persecution. They came out of this saying, "In the midst of a situation that persists and escalates, we find the government’s response to be purely perfunctory, insignificant, and calculatedly confusing." Making a serious conclusion that the conditions in the Philippines have become "increasingly dire with the abdication of responsibility by those in power," they denounced "the Arroyo government’s policy to criminalize dissent."

Before they left, they issued a formal statement that was given to me: "Our conclusion is that democracy in the Philippines is threatened by this erosion of civil, political and human rights – which form part of the hard-won legacy of the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. We return to the US determined to help focus attention on the Philippine situation, to help mold public opinion and thereby contribute to efforts to end political killings and persecution."

Signed by all four women, it ended by saying: "We will actively seek various international venues, including the United Nations, to ensure that those who have made violations of human, civil and political rights for the people of the Philippines be held accountable. Furthermore, as citizens and taxpayers of the United States of America, we intend to question our government’s propensity to pour military aid to this distressed country, to the detriment of aid to the more critical areas of health, housing and education."

Gabriela expressed solidarity with the position and conclusions of the panel. As I left the assembly, I was given a long list of the female victims of extra-judicial killings and massacres. I saw the name of a young girl, 8 years old, killed in a massacre. These are the names of the female victims alone. What about the young men – how many have there been already? These all remain undenounced and unresolved – no presidential outrage – no barking orders.

Too many lives lost – too many extra-judicial killings under the present leadership – and there is no screaming fury.

In celebrating Independence Day 2006, a decent citizenry will have to mark it as a day of pain and sorrow.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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