A brave, deep-thinking human rights lawyer

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

Quickly thinking, he played dead after enduring at least eight stab wounds. A screwdriver was left sticking out of his right temple, but he survived the attack by two men he didn’t know. It was one early evening in March 2021, and he was on his way home.

The attackers scurried to two waiting motorcycles, lugging his backpack and a shoulder bag containing his laptop, an external disk for backup files and case documents. They didn’t take his wallet and smartphone; they weren’t ordinary thieves.

It took 18 days for him to recover in a hospital. On March 9, the 33-year-old lawyer had a phone talk with his colleagues in the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL).

“Hi, guys! I can’t stay on the phone long ’cause my head still hurts a lot,” he said. “I just want to send you all this message: I can’t tell you enough how thankful I am for all your support as I go through this ordeal. Physically, the attack has weakened me. But my resolve to continue with NUPL work has never been stronger.”

“Though difficult, we can never let fear prevent us from fighting the battles that must be fought; and the cause of human rights is entirely one worth fighting for,” he said.

Last Aug. 8, the survivor of that frustrated killing – Angelo Karlo Guillen, secretary general of the NUPL-Panay chapter – was honored with an international award: the 2022 Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty. The medal comes with a $30,000 prize.

Bestowed by the US-based Human Rights First for more than 30 years, the Baldwin Medal “has brought recognition and support to extraordinary activists who are advancing the protection of human rights at great personal risk,” said Michael Breen, president and CEO of Human Rights First. The award is named after a principal founder of both the American Civil Liberties Union and the International League for Human Rights.

“Angelo Guillen is a courageous and effective advocate whose work has made a difference in the lives of his fellow Filipinos and put a spotlight on abuses and calling for accountability,” Breen declared.

The award’s official announcement noted that the March 2021 attack on Guillen followed repeated attempts by government officials and others to depict him and other NUPL lawyers as “terrorists.” It cited his work primarily on the island of Panay, where his legal practice has included focus on helping document human rights violations and educating farmers and indigenous communities on their human rights under domestic and international law.

In accepting the award, Guillen said he does so in behalf of all Filipino human rights lawyers and defenders: “[It] will encourage us even more to continue our work defending human rights and civil liberties in the Philippines, even in these difficult times.”

“I am especially glad this award could be announced on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, which is also National Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the Philippines,” he noted. The Tumandoks of Panay and other indigenous peoples, farmers, labor leaders and activists, he added, “have borne the brunt of unjust arrests, extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations committed by state security forces.”

The rights violations “to this day, still take place throughout the country,” he stressed. “(The people’s) rights must be protected, and we hope that this recognition will help bring attention to their plight.”

Interestingly, ten days before the award was announced, Guillen had written a thought-provoking essay, “Why governments should stop branding armed struggle as ‘terrorism’.” (I got it via email.)

“There is no universally-accepted definition of terrorism,” he began. For two decades, he pointed out, a committee created by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has been trying to come up with a draft comprehensive convention on international terrorism, “but [member] states could not agree on its parameters.”

The essay is a bit lengthy.  Let me share certain portions:

• “While contemporary usages often suggest violence attributed to non-state actors, the term is, ironically enough, derived from acts of repression perpetrated by the state. This, however, has not stopped states from using it to delegitimize local resistance movements.”

• “Armed struggle for political purposes is a concept long recognized and accepted by the international community. In 1982, the UNGA passed Resolution 37/43 reaffirming the legitimacy of peoples’ struggle for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and forced occupation ‘by all available means, including armed struggle’.”

• “Counterterrorism frameworks, however, became a convenient tool for governments to criminalize non-state armed groups and discredit their issues and ideologies. By using the ‘terrorist’ label, governments also aim to deny the existence of armed conflicts within their territories or the applicability of international humanitarian law (IHL).”

• “In the Philippines, the government designated the CPP, NPA and NDFP as terrorist groups, notwithstanding the fact that the said organizations have been engaged in decades-long armed conflict against the Philippine government. Peace talks between the parties have been taking place intermittently since 1992, with multiple joint declarations and formal agreements already concluded, including the 1998 Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL)…” (The peace talks were moving ahead towards more substantive agreements when President Duterte arbitrarily “terminated” them in late 2017.)

• “Using counterterrorism legislation, governments criminalize all acts performed by parties designated as terrorists even though these may be permitted under IHL. For example, IHL considers attacks against military targets, even those carried out by non-state actors, as a legitimate use of force in the context of an armed conflict.”

• “Governments also use counterterrorism frameworks to deny their obligations under IHL and to evade accountability for [IHL] violations committed by state forces.”

• “Blurring the lines between armed conflict and terrorism also leads to a reduction of civic space and the weakening of democratic institutions and traditions.”

For your full appreciation and comprehension of Guillen’s essay, I reserve this space for it next week.

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Email: [email protected]


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