EIROLL MANALO of the Philippine Human Rights Information Center talks about pains of being a defender of human rights in a time when they are among those in great need of defense.
A s a human rights defender, I have a pretty good grasp of the kinds of reactions I tend to get when people find out about my line of work:
- Stuff like “You’re so brave!”or“I can’t imagine how you can do that!”
- “You must be terrified.”
- “Do you get paid?”or its slightly more insulting variant (“How are you even supporting yourself?”) and
- “Fuck, man, I’m so sorry.”
Imagine, too, the faces people make. Some are pretty good at masking their displeasure. Others offer what I hope are sympathetic grunts. Once in a while, I get quiet praise.
I understand that this bit of information about myself is pregnant with meaning and interpretation. It’s 2019 and I’m in the Philippines; saying I’m a human rights defender loads a conversation with complicated and often contradictory notions. It’s a burden; I’ve learned to both accept it and dread it. It’s OK and it’s not. I understand people’s reactions just as often as I don’t. That’s fine.
After all, these are extraordinary times—for reasons that shouldn’t be. A populist leadership so breathtakingly hostile to the spirit and praxis of democratic rule has wrapped itself around our everyday lives. Public support is strong while legitimate opposition is being dismantled in systematic and, yes, very effective ways.
On one hand, nothing about this is at all surprising. All we’ve known about governance is one of a neoliberal plutocracy that squandered any promise of far-reaching progress we believed we have earned after the return of democracy three decades ago. At the same time, much like a slow-motion car crash, knowing that it is happening doesn’t make it hurt any less.
That’s the thing. It hurts.
Let’s go back to 2016. “Change is coming,” it was said. And enough people believed. Perhaps, willing it desperately might work this time. Perhaps, ignoring the ridiculous macho posturing and holding onto a forceful, admittedly well-designed narrative of anti-elitism might bear fruit. In many ways, change did come, only not in the ways that honored the humanity and dignity of our people.
And so we have the so-called war on drugs. The human rights movement rejects this “brand.” For all that I know now, and for all that I have seen and heard, this is not a war on drugs—this is a war on the poor. The very same poor who overwhelmingly voted for the man now in Malacañang. These are the people who now are either killed via nanlaban (“they fought back”) tall tales or have had loved ones die on them, leaving them widowed, orphaned, financially bereft, deeply traumatized, and stigmatized by their communities. They were poor, already victimized by a callous system that readily exploits them. With the so-called war on drugs, their human dignity is trampled and re-victimized, again and again.
These words are uncomfortable. They should be. Many would entertain the notion that maybe those killed were bad people, that they did bad things that endangered their own families and communities and the country as a whole. Others claim pragmatism: this is what it takes to push the country forward. Living in urban areas, specifically, we partake in the daily brush against an all too real sense of criminality, from petty theft to rape and murder. And so many of us, exhausted and wishing only that ourselves and our loved ones feel safe outside and in our own homes, buy into the idea that progress means eradicating crime. And crime is committed by the poor.
What was once usually left unspoken is now a rallying cry. Death, should it happen to a poor person or a drug addict or a criminal (now all one and the same), can and must be rationalized. After all, the rest of us have been too patient, too lenient, too understanding. Some people just do not deserve another chance. And if they end up killed, well that’s just the life they chose.
Or maybe this is too reductive. The few people in my life who hold these views are otherwise decent people who love their families and try to be good citizens and believe in agreater good. I wholeheartedly disagree with everything they believe on this point, and yet I cannot condemn them. I choose not to.
What I choose to do is prove that they are mistaken, maybe blinded and deceived.
H uman rights defenders would often tell you that they feel a sense of calling. They feel an immense sense of obligation to right wrongs, demand justice, and fight for those who cannot yet fight for themselves. I admire these sentiments and share them as well. If I’m being truly honest, though, I know that for myself, being a human rights defender is, above all else, a job.
It is a job because, more than anything, I want it to be over. This particular nightmare of impunity and injustice has to stop. Other crises will surely emerge, perhaps even worse ones, but this, now, has to end. Now is all I can think about because every day is one more day for another family to lose a father, a mother, a daughter, a son. And every day that goes by is one more degree towards murder becoming normalized, a need to which we are becoming increasingly numb about. One extrajudicial killing (EJK) is already more than enough, but a death after another, after another, is an execution of our collective soul.
When I think of this, I think of someone I will refer to as “Lucy,” who was once fiercely supportive of this administration. She who urged her son to surrender to the barangay after being mistakenly put on the drug list. The son was killed soon after. I also think of “Ronald” whose body was riddled with bullets but whose death certificate says he died of pneumonia. I think of “Joan,” whose brother’s coffin had to be taken by a barangay patrol van to the cemetery after the funeral home refused to send them a funeral car. I think of “Samuel,” barely six years old, who watched his father die from gunshot wounds as he sat next to him on a city street.
The dead may or may not have been guilty; they may or may have not fought back. That they died in these ways says that our society’s moral calculus tipped away from respecting their humanity.
I confront this last bit daily. Is it enough that I write pieces like this so that more people at least know? Is it enough that my organization, and others like ours, have escalated their activities to respond to as many of these cases as possible? Is it enough that my colleagues risk their health and safety to gather these stories so that they are never forgotten? Can we shift the tide away from normalized mass murder and towards accountability, justice, and rule of law?
Most days, I feel like the answer is “no.” Not yet. Purely as a numbers game, we are outmatched. In terms of resources, we are outgunned—literally. Indeed, these past three years have seen the shrinking of civic spaces for individuals and groups that dare oppose the creeping autocracy. Indigenous peoples, peasants, fisherfolk, women’s groups leaders, people’s lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders are threatened, red-tagged, or outright murdered.
Despite these, and so much more that ought to keep human rights defenders feel defeated, resistance is getting stronger. I am frankly often amazed by just how much strength it must take for my colleagues to keep at it. We persist, quietly by working directly with communities most affected, and noisily on the streets when we need to have our voices heard through mass protest actions.
Which brings me to what I believe is the most crucial part of the job: helping people—our family, friends, our communities on the ground and online, and our partners in affected communities. Helping them realize that this is a shared struggle; that advocating for human rights is not just about the deaths of alleged criminals, but about the lives and dignity of everyone. It is not just about opposing politicians but ensuring that the State does not abuse its immense powers. To defend human rights is to defend our individual and collective humanity. To advocate for human rights is to fight for a vision of shared prosperity and peace among all peoples. What is righteous is human, and what is humane is right.
I often think of this one afternoon late 2017. A colleague and I were in the middle of interviewing families about their EJK cases and, by case five, I remember needing to take a quick breather. It was a rough day; the stories are astounding in their horror and horrifying in how commonplace their deaths seemed. I remember thinking how this much suffering is senseless. I remember asking myself how much courage I can muster to face these people and say that I can listen and that the stories of their loved ones mattered.
I walked for a bit and in a dingy, dimly lit room I found myself happening upon a truth I have since tried to hold on to: we are not meant to do this alone.
(Editors note: some of the names mentioned above are aliases meant to protect their identity.)