Thursday, January 19, 2012

The concept of human rights stands accused in trial of Sulu activist

January 18, 2012
A Statement from the Asian Human Rights Commission

PHILIPPINES: The concept of human rights stands accused in trial of Sulu activist

The continued prosecution of human rights activist Temogen "Cocoy" Tulawie, on murder charges based on forced confessions, indicates how human rights are understood in his society of Sulu, and by the public officials ruling it. The case against him questions not only the legality of evidence or the denial of due process, but also reveals a far deeper social and institutional problem unthinkable to many.

The southern island of Sulu, where Tulawie lived most of his adult life, was an advanced civilization in pre-colonial Philippines, before torture, extrajudicial killings, rape and massive displacement due to conflict, became a way of life. Sulu had developed trade and diplomatic relations farther than any territories in the archipelago, before the Philippines was even known as a nation-state.

Tragically, what the people in Sulu had achieved in the old days could now only be reminisced in history books, not in the realities of daily life. Sulu has degenerated over the decades due to a deeply entrenched 'gun culture' and 'lawlessness', becoming the complete opposite from its past. In an article Tulawie wrote while in hiding, "Guilty until proven innocent", he grasped the depth of his society's problem:

"Sulu is possibly the vaguest or most complicated thing one would ever encounter. HR (human rights) workers has to battle against the damaging consequences of governance tailored to suit the vested interests of those in power -- autocracy and anarchy combined. The parasitic nature of both is out there ruining the lives of our common people. The leaders and followers are caught in a corrupted "Lord-and-Slave" mindset where the autocratic Lord sanctions the lawlessness of its followers cultivating a medieval attitude of shamelessness known to any man".
Tulawie, whose ethnic origin is Tausug, is one of the few Sulu intellectuals who witnessed and experienced the suffering of his own people, and wanted to do something to help. His compassion for his people emerged after studying at a university in Manila. His exposure to a different society in the archipelago, far from his own, and of other intellectuals of his time, made his documentation of human rights in Sulu possible.

In Sulu, where people are inherently suspicious because of its violent past, the documentation of rights violations is seen as a meaningless exercise. Despite this, Tulawie resolved to continuously undertake documentation, knowing full well that in the strict sense of court process, nothing would come of it. He recorded human rights violations to narrate how his people and society are oppressed. This led to opportunities to have the suffering of his people better understood outside. He was also able to help victims obtain certain remedies or redress in their case.

In a territory where the value of human lives has become meaningless, it is no surprise that the recording of people’s narratives is perceived to be a meaningless exercise as well. The people's survival is collective and dependent on the strength and influence of those they are attached to. Power struggles and social control is expectedly bloody and deadly. As Tulawie wrote, his society is the "possibly vaguest" and "most complicated" place to do human rights work.

In his society, there are fundamental questions: What does human rights mean? Can rights be protected without an institution of justice? How does protection of rights function in a lawless society where rule of the gun, not the law, operates? Here, discourse about the simplistic interpretation of human rights norms and standards are obviously meaningless.

When Tulawie and those who supported him began their work, the idea of making complaints barely registered in the minds of victims. This was not a result of ignorance, but of the absence of even the concept of criminal justice institutions in their society. Their idea of justice was revenge, not formal court proceedings. For them, the courts operated as an extension of power of those in control, not as a dispenser of justice as in a rule of law system where rights and liberties are protected.

As Tulawie wrote, the police, prosecutors and court judges operate in a manner "tailored to suit the vested interests of those in power". In his case for instance, the fabricated charges of murder against him and three others, using the evidence of forced confessions, were consciously designed to meet a certain objective: to legally justify their arrest and detention, and deflect concerns regarding the suppression of human rights work. The social impact of this false prosecution of Tulawie has been the decline of complaint making, made more tragic since Tulawie himself was instrumental in cultivating the practice.

Even before the trial began, the prosecutor had already concluded that Tulawie had links with Abu Sayyaf, a local terrorist group routinely held responsible for bomb attacks targeting civilians, abductions and kidnappings. The labelling and linking of activists’ work with terrorist activities is in itself not a new phenomenon in the country. In fact, for many years, the Filipino police and military have repeatedly justified the arrest, detention and prosecution of human rights defenders on this pretext.

In Sulu, once an activist or individual is accused of involvement in any terrorist activities, imagined or real, the psychological impact would lead public opinion to evolve in favour of the security forces. As in Tulawie's case, the extent of self censorship and reluctance of local people to speak on his behalf, for valid security reasons, demonstrates the extent of an extreme and sophisticated form of oppression and social control.

The Asian Human Rights Commission urges for the charges against Tulawie to be dropped without delay. Unless this wrong is corrected, not only will an innocent individual have to endure a trial of false charges, but the trial itself will effectively undermine the fundamental principles of human rights. It is the fundamental concepts of human rights, and not only Tulawie, stands accused in this trial.
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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