“Good intentions are not enough,” said the secretary of the Philippine Department of Justice, Leila de Lima, during a meeting with the World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation currently visiting the Philippines. She met with the 'Living Letters' team on Friday 3 December 2010.
The group of church representatives from Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia and Canada visited the Philippines, 1-5 December, with the aim of looking at the current human rights situation in that country. They spoke with the justice secretary prior to an encounter with participants in a hunger strike supporting parties involved in the "Morong 43" case.
The Morong 43 have been detained since February following their arrest during a workshop sponsored by an alliance of health workers in Morong, Rizal province. Authorities have claimed the health workers possessed firearms and explosives, but the detainees insist the evidence against them was planted.
De Lima has presented arguments in favour of the detainees’ release, and she told the Living Letters delegation that she will issue a second memorandum soon, re-stating her position in the hope that it will bring about a positive solution for the prisoners and their families.
She confirmed a report on extra-judicial killings in the Philippines suggesting that most such crimes committed this year have never been properly addressed. She stated her intention of forming a special commission of the department of justice with the mandate to investigate extra-judicial killings. “This will be a response to the many cases not given enough attention, and a way of breaking the culture of injustice that prevails,“ she said.
De Lima continued, “The best intentions are there, but we need actions that will bring an end to all the human rights violations and extra-judicial killings.“
“We look for more international calls to pay attention to this current situation, for dialogues and international public statements of support in relation to the present human rights situation and all forms of injustice against the Filipino people,” the Secretary of Justice said at the conclusion of the meeting.
Some members of the delegation then visited the defendants in the Morong 43 case, who for the past 10 months have been detained in Camp Bagong Diwa.
Meanwhile, farmers of the Hacienda Luisita community received other members of the WCC sponsored delegation. The farmers have been demanding land rights promised to them for the past fifty years.
Hacienda Luisita is in the central plains of Luzon. The land has been owned and controlled by the powerful Cojuangco family since 1957. T he current president, Benigno Cojuangco Aquino III, belongs to this family. Hacienda Luisita comprises 6,435 hectares of sugar cane plantations. Although the Cojuangco family took over the property on an understanding that the land would be given back to farmers after a period of 10 years, this has not happened and there is no sign that it will happen soon.
In a general strike in November 2004, the farmers of Cojuangco Hacienda Luisita united with sympathizers in peaceful protest, calling for an end to the injustices committed against them. The protest involved about 5,000 farmers. On 16 November 2004 seven farmers were killed and more than 100 wounded when the military dispersed the protesters. Six other farmers were killed during 2005 and 2006.
Talking to the delegation, farmers explained that they are compelled to work in a sugar mill, are paid the paltry sum of 9.5 Filipino pesos per day, and are allowed to work only once a week. This has a serious impact on their livelihoods and families.
In addition to their current struggle for decent livelihood, the farmers shared concern about the heavy military presence in the area, including that of foreign forces. This has resulted in the limitation of their right to assemble freely. They are not allowed to meet in public spaces or places where community gatherings would normally be held. These farmers are under constant surveillance resulting in them living in constant fear, harassed, oppressed and interrogated by militiamen (or CAFGU) that were recruited by the military.
The farmers have organised to provide a common voice against the politically and economically influential and powerful Cojuangco family, and to ask for better wages and regular work. None of their demands has been positively answered. Instead, more than 300 of the mill workers have been laid off, thus intensifying the community’s misery. The Cojuangco family continues to ignore orders from the government to distribute land to the farmers.
Aneth Lwakatare is a World Council of Churches communications department intern from Tanzania.