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A sharply different Christmas this year

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - December 19, 2020 - 12:00am

It’s a week before Christmas. Yet, the usual atmosphere of joyful celebration, a sense of oncoming peace and hope for a better new year can hardly be felt or even perceived among the people. And this cannot be blamed solely on the COVID-19 pandemic: the dampening restrictions on gatherings, the health department’s forewarning of a surge in post-holiday infections and the uncertainty of when anti-COVID vaccines could be made available in the country.

Rather, the three weeks since the onset of the Christmas season have been sullied by hate speech and red-tagging from way way up in the Duterte administration; by pre-dawn raids/searches/arrests of six union organizers and a woman journalist on World Human Rights Day (Dec. 10); and by continuing incidences of extrajudicial killing this very week.

Last Sunday, two indigenous peoples tribal leaders – Datu Winefredo Sumael, 75, and Datu Raffy Alim, 28 – were ambushed and killed by two gunmen on their way to an elders’ summit in Bukidnon; on Tuesday, Guihulngan City’s health officer who headed the city task force against COVID-19, Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan, was shot dead along with her husband, Edwin, on their way home after work (in 2018 she was erroneously red-tagged as the alleged spokesperson of the NPA’s Apolinario Gatmaitan Command); and on Thursday, a woman lawyer of Danao City (Cebu), Baby Maria Concepcion Landero-Ole, was slain while driving her pick-up truck, the 54th lawyer killed under Duterte’s watch.

“The Advent season is upon us, yet unpeace reigns,” sadly noted the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform on Dec. 15, expressing “alarm and concern over the deteriorating prospects of peace in our land.” The peace-advocacy group is co-chaired by Bishop Emeritus Antonio J. Ledesma of the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro and Rt. Rev. Rex B. Reyes Jr. of the Ecumenical Bishops Forum, former secretary-general of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines.

Respect for human rights, which is a primary requisite for peace, “is ignored, or worse, demonized as a barrier to ‘peace and order’,” according to the group, citing the Dec. 10 arrests, the arrests and killings of activists in the past few months and the “numerous lives [that] continue to be claimed under the campaign against illegal drugs.”

It is indeed a sorrowful departure from the meaning that Christians all over the world ascribe to the Advent season, which is supposed to be a joyful anticipation of the coming of Jesus Christ. Drawing a “sharp contrast” between the Advent periods that prevailed this year and last year, the PEPP observed that in the Philippines:

“Harmful rhetoric abounds, even coming from the President himself. The (NTF-ELCAC) is relentless in its malicious red-tagging of organizations and individuals critical of the government, including churches and church personalities, by falsely accusing them of being linked to terrorism.”

Add to these that President Duterte, heeding the military’s rejection of a Christmas-New Year ceasefire between the AFP and the New People’s Army, has declared “no more ceasefires… and no more peace talks” during the remaining 18 months of his term.

In contrast, the PEPP recalled that last year “back-channel negotiations between the government and the NDFP resulted in a Christmas ceasefire which redounded to a hopeful atmosphere of peace.” Unfortunately, it lamented, the government rejected the positive results of the back-channel talks, “unilaterally stopped the peace negotiations and proceeded to heighten its war against the NDFP, the (NPA) and the (CPP) and its so-called legal fronts.”

“This drive to annihilate the CPP-NPA-NDFP without seriously addressing the long-standing issues of poverty, lawlessness and inequality in the country,” it stressed, “will not bring about a just and enduring peace. It will only further fan the flames of the armed conflict.”

Nonetheless, the church leaders appealed for the silencing of the guns during this season by both parties in the armed conflict. “Let us usher in a new dawning of peace,” they urged, “a peace that is not for the silencing of critical voices but a peace that addresses the root causes of dissent.”

Fortunately, in response to all the negative developments, various human rights and justice advocacy institutions and groups abroad have come up with positive news this week.

• The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, reported last Tuesday that she found, in her preliminary examination, “reasonable basis to believe” that crimes against humanity (involving murder, torture, mental harm and other inhumane acts) were committed in Duterte’s war on illegal drugs. Her office, she said, anticipated reaching a decision to seek authorization to open full investigation, by the first half of 2021, of the complaints it had received against Duterte and other persons in authority.

Duterte’s reaction to the news: He wouldn’t mind going to jail if the ICC would find him guilty as alleged, as he again claimed “I have not killed anyone” and blamed his political opponents for allegedly providing wrong information to the ICC. He didn’t hit back at Bensouda, unlike what he did in 2018. His spokespersons, however, came away with inane and malicious imputations against the ICC head and its prosecutor.

• On Thursday, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights called on the Duterte government to stop red-tagging, specifically against the Makabayan bloc in the House of Representatives. APHR chairman Charles Santiago, a Malaysian lawmaker, said: “Red-tagging has had extremely violent consequences in the Philippines, and the fact that we are seeing President Duterte leading the way on such a menacing practice is utterly inexcusable.”

“Let us be clear,” he added, “not only do the President’s actions attempt to silence political oppositions and undermine democracy, but they also directly put people’s lives at risk, particularly those who oppose his agenda.”

In his Wednesday night televised message to the people, Duterte had again accused the Makabayan bloc of involvement in a “grand conspiracy of communism,” threateningly told Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate: “Ikaw, Zarate, bantay ka (watch out). You said I’m about to leave? Well, really?”

The APHR chairman riposted: “How can lawmakers be expected to fulfill their role as a check on the Executive when they themselves are being attacked? We urgently call on President Duterte and the Philippine government to stop labelling directly-elected representatives as terrorists, and allow opposition lawmakers to effectively fulfill their mandates and freely express their opinions.”

• Also on Thursday, an international human rights coalition, along with the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, secretaries-general of churches in the US, Canada and Germany and several personalities announced the formation of an independent international investigation on human rights violations in the Philippines.

The objectives: to “create a space for the international community to help ensure that justice is served to victims and their families” by providing new data to update the June 2020 comprehensive report which Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights, submitted to the UN Human Rights Council; and help create a “favorable climate for the UNHRC, the UN General Assembly and the ICC to do their work.”

Among others, the investigation will determine if tangible domestic remedies and mechanisms are available; if these are genuine, effective and accessible; and if accessible, to verify if these remedies and mechanisms truly provide redress and protection against human rights violations.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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