Fair Trial Day highlights threats to legal profession in the Philippines

Rebecca Root, IBA Southeast Asia CorrespondentFriday 14 June 2024

When Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Romualdez Marcos Junior (‘Marcos Jr’) won the 2022 presidential election in the Philippines, there was hope that a wave of progress on human rights would sweep through the country. The regime of the former president, Rodrigo Duterte, had become synonymous with forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings.

But two years in and many commentators say the situation in respect of human rights in the Philippines remains precarious. ‘While there are some cosmetic changes, we don't believe that the present situation in the Philippines is any better than the previous administrations’, says Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso, Executive Director of human rights organisation FORUM-ASIA.

Arbitrary detention, torture and the forced disappearance of government critics continue in the Philippines, according to Human Rights Watch, alongside ‘red tagging’ – where outspoken individuals are falsely accused of supporting communism or terrorism, often as a precursor to physical attacks as well as online and in-person surveillance. Furthermore, in 2023, a group of UN special rapporteurs expressed their concerns about judicial harassment and violence against judges and lawyers in the Philippines, as well as the use of anti-terrorism laws to silence activists, journalists and lawyers.

‘It’s a very serious crisis of human rights,’ says Peter Murphy, Chairman of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines. The government accuses non-governmental organisations (NGOs) of financing terrorism as a means to stop them from operating, he explains. ‘There were a couple of cases of this under Duterte, but there’s a really big number of cases now.’

The peak of all these attacks on lawyers was under the Duterte administration but […] the harassment has not stopped

Eleonora Scala
Programme Lawyer, IBA Human Rights Institute

Duterte’s administration was ‘catastrophic’ for human rights, says Carlos Conde, a senior researcher within the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, and the situation remains ‘dire’. Duterte’s infamous ‘war on drugs’ resulted in the deaths of over 6,000 people during police operations – though human rights groups estimate the true number of deaths to be about 30,000. The country is under investigation by the International Criminal Court, which is examining alleged crimes committed during the ‘war on drugs’ campaign.

President Marcos Jr adopted a more measured attitude towards human rights during his election campaign and promised to change the face of the war on drugs. ‘The mad, violent rhetoric that characterised the [previous] regime is now gone’, says Conde, ‘but the fact is the drug war and extrajudicial killings are still happening and part of the reason for that is because Marcos Jr has not rescinded the policies handed down.’

Duterte gave police additional powers in relation to anti-drug operations through executive orders, and also enabled law enforcement to designate terrorists and put them under surveillance. Raids on suspects – and the killing of them – continue under these orders.

Meanwhile, four journalists have been murdered in the past few years. These include Juan Jumalon, who was shot by gunmen while broadcasting on-air. Several activists, including environmental campaigners Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano, have also been abducted; Castro and Tamano have since been freed. ‘Our thinking is that Marcos Jr is not yet likely to make a complete break from Duterte to the point that he would reverse many of the policies that resulted [in] this human rights problem’, Conde says.

Yet the government has made advances in some areas. The Department of Justice, for example, has been trying to de-congest prisons – the country has some of the most overcrowded in the world – and the government has been much more willing to engage internationally. It has allowed UN human rights experts and the EU’s then-Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore, to visit the country, while it has signed an enhanced cooperation agreement with the US. Leila de Lima, a former Secretary of Justice, was also released after almost seven years’ imprisonment on what many consider to have been politically motivated charges, while the Chief Executive Officer of the media outlet Rappler, Maria Ressa – a critic of Duterte – has been acquitted of tax evasion charges.

While some still hold out hope that further change is coming, after two years of Marcos Jr’s leadership, Diez-Bacalso – whose husband was forcibly disappeared and tortured under the Duterte regime but later returned – is unsure. ‘I believe that regardless of whatever cosmetic reforms the present administration is doing, it does not make the situation better,’ she says.

It’s in this context that 200 legal professionals, academics, journalists and victims of human rights abuses convened at the 2024 International Fair Trial Day conference in the Philippines on 14 June. This annual event was established in 2021 and aims to highlight the importance of the right to a fair trial, and the serious challenges posed to due process rights globally. Each year the conference takes place in a country where, organisers say, fair trial rights are being systematically violated. The Philippines was selected as the destination for 2024 because lawyers are among those under attack, says Eleonora Scala, a programme lawyer at the IBA’s Human Rights Institute.

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers reports 271 attacks on Filipino lawyers and judges – believed to be related to their work – between September 2007 and December 2022. Of these, 41 have taken place since Marcos Jr’s administration came to power. Between July 2016 and March 2021, meanwhile, over 60 lawyers, prosecutors and judges were killed in the Philippines, with the majority being defence lawyers working on drugs or human rights cases. ‘I remember an incident when I was still a law student: an [alumnus] of my law school was killed at the door of her house because a supporter of a cult leader that she was prosecuting thought it best to kill her’, says Lloyd Nicholas Danduan Vergara, SPPI Council Liaison Officer for the IBA War Crimes Committee and Court Attorney VI at the Supreme Court of the Philippines.

‘The peak of all these attacks we have witnessed was under the Duterte administration but […] the harassment has not stopped,’ Scala says. In 2023, Maria Saniata Liwliwa Gonzales Alzate, a lawyer advocating for the rights of marginalised people, was shot and killed in her car by two unidentified persons. ‘The actual physical safety of people involved in judicial processes is still a concern at a high level as it was under Duterte’, says Murphy.

Despite the threats to local lawyers, Scala says it’s important that the conference, which draws many professionals from abroad, proceeded in order to show ‘international solidarity to the local Filipino legal community fighting with so much courage despite all the harassment and the crackdown they have been enduring for many years.’ Moving forward, Murphy says that the IBA has a role to play in providing the Integrated Bar of the Philippines with an international platform to call for more changes.

Image: Supreme Court of the Philippines, Manila. Tupungato/AdobeStock.com