Amnesty International’s ‘Toast to Freedom’ | Inquirer Opinion
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Amnesty International’s ‘Toast to Freedom’

When the Philippines was under martial law, human rights victims were often left alone to suffer their fate. Victims of torture, enforced disappearances and warrantless arrests could find scarcely any solace from our courts of law, and certainly little sympathy from a cold and silenced public. Their only recourse was to call on international groups, and of those there were not too many.

Amnesty International (AI) was one of the few international human rights organizations that lent their names and networks to desperate Filipinos. On May 28 this year, AI marked the 50th anniversary of its founding. Filipinos should offer their own toast to AI and its valued place in our history, and in doing so likewise remind younger Filipinos how difficult the journey has been and how much longer it can take.


The lore is that British lawyer Peter Benenson launched AI in 1961 in outrage, because two Portuguese students were thrown in jail merely for raising their glasses to liberty. In the Philippines, AI reports covered the broad ideological spectrum of the anti-Marcos opposition, among them, Fidel Agcaoili who was identified with the Communist Party; Crispin Beltran who would later head the left-wing Kilusang Mayo Uno; Eduardo Olaguer and other members of the Light a Fire Movement; and several priests, lay church workers and community organizers.

Significantly, AI’s Philippine office is currently headed by Dr. Aurora Parong, herself a former political detainee whose habeas corpus case came before the Supreme Court in Garcia Padilla v. Ponce Enrile. That case validated the warrantless arrest of several activists including that of Parong’s, a medical doctor; Abe Sabino G. Padilla, now an anthropology Ph.D. and a UP professor; and Neri Colmenares, now a lawyer and member of the Philippine Congress (as Party-List Bayan Muna representative).


AI pioneered the use of letter-writing in behalf of human rights victims. It sent the message straight to dictators and generals and told them that people were watching. It also sent the message to the victims and their families, telling them that they were not alone. It sent yet another message to ordinary people, that there was something they can do on their own. Parong recalled: “I remember hundreds of letters from the Netherlands sent to prisoners of conscience in [our] detention center in Nueva Vizcaya. These letters boost[ed] the morale of the detainees … and made the soldiers in the detention camp improve their treatment of the detainees.”

In all candor, I actually found the letter-writing rather too mild and safe for my taste, especially since I was a college student then and preferred the excitement of protest rallies that always ended in violent dispersals with water cannons and police truncheons. In hindsight, I realize that letter-writing does affect decision-makers, even those insensitive to public opinion, because while they can impugn the newspapers’ credibility, they cannot belittle these letters bearing the signatures of real people.

Many things have since changed. AI has broadened its mandate, which began with the protection of the political rights of prisoners of conscience, and which now extends to social and economic rights. Filipinos might be more familiar with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s formula of “four freedoms”: of speech, of worship, from want and from fear, or as academics would say, the “indivisibility and interdependence” of political and economic rights.

AI also operates in a changed milieu. There are now more international human rights groups that monitor situations in various countries. There are more human rights conventions, including those on torture and on enforced disappearances, that provide NGO activists the legal standards by which to judge. There have emerged new international or mixed tribunals empowered to do justice, among international tribunals for Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and in East Timor.

We all know that human rights violations have persisted even after Edsa I. This should remind us that threats can be found not just in dictators “writ large” but just as badly in petty tyrants found in the military, in bureaucracies, in village thugs or, for that matter, political elites in the cities and provinces. It is as if Edsa I cut off the monster’s head, but it had meanwhile replicated itself in tiny versions scattered all over geographically, in and out of government.

* * *

I agree: It is best that the current word war between the Philippines and China over the Spratly archipelago be waged in the language of international law. That language should include the test of effectivité established in several international decisions, chief among them the classic case of “Las Palmas/Miangas” in which, ironically enough, the Philippines lost an island to Indonesia (when both countries were colonies, respectively of the US and the Dutch). But it establishes principles that will now benefit the Philippines, and we might as well invoke them now.


But the one part of international law that doesn’t really establish our title over the Spratly islands is the Law of the Sea, which governs the waters and “maritime zones” (the underwater “continental shelf” and the sea bed). We are claiming title over islands, and our claim over the waters merely follows our claim over the islands. There is a big difference between land and water. On land, you walk. On water, you swim. More seriously now, to claim the land in this case, you can invoke the likes of Las Palmas/Miangas and its progeny. The Law of the Sea enters the picture only then. The only way it can matter sooner is if we classify parts of the Spratlys not as land but as mere “maritime features” which are less than islands, but that is a separate debate altogether.

(Email: [email protected])

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