Last 16 July 2010, the Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC), in partnership with The Asia Foundation and with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAid), launched the Nationwide University Roadshow on Extra-Legal Killings and Enforced Disappearances before a crowd of more than 200 students, government officials, representatives from international organizations and civil society groups.
The University Roadshow is a series of lectures and public forums in 60 universities around the country featuring experts in human rights and political science, prominent Filipino activists, and top government officials – all of whom have come together to raise awareness on the situation of extra-legal killings and enforced disappearances in the Philippines, existing mechanisms of redress, and recent developments in human rights law.
Friday’s launch event involved lectures by Edita Burgos of the Free Jonas Burgos Movement, the Hon. Leila M. de Lima, Secretary of Justice of the Philippines, and Atty. Carlos Medina, Jr. of the Ateneo Human Rights Center.
After a brief introduction by Fr. Jose Cruz, Ateneo University’s Dean of Social Sciences, Atty. Krizna Gomez of the AHRC presented the Center’s main initiative in addressing extra-legal killings and enforced disappearances – the formation of Multi-Sectoral Quick Reaction Teams. These teams, called “MSQRTs,” bring together representatives from government agencies and civil society groups in order to facilitate responses to killings and disappearances.
Atty. Gomez explained that the main goal of these MSQRTs is to provide a venue where relatives of victims and the general public can report cases, seek assistance, lobby for immediate investigation, get legal advice, request protection, and seek psychosocial services. Atty. Gomez stressed the need for greater coordination in efforts to address extra-legal killings.
“A lot of work still needs to be done,” she said. “The realization has to come about that responsible institutions need to work together.”
After Atty. Gomez’ presentation, Edita Burgos – the mother of disappeared activist Jonas Burgos – took the stage. Much of Ms. Burgos’ talk focused on the human element, on the suffering and pain undergone by the families of the disappeared.
“At one moment we are normal,” she said. “Then in the next moment something triggers a memory of our loved ones and we are stunned into silence.”
Ms. Burgos’ talk was also a call to action – she reminded everyone in the crowd of their responsibility, as members of the general public, not to turn a blind eye to the killings and disappearances that have become all-too-familiar in recent years.
“If only a good Samaritan would have intervened when my Jonas cried out for help, he would not have been disappeared,” she said. “Wherever you are, when a neighbour is in need of help, don’t let the opportunity pass you by. If someone is hungry, don’t just say God bless you, give them food.”
The Hon. Leila de Lima, Secretary of Justice of the Philippines and former Chair of the Commission on Human Rights, spoke next. She explained that the Department of Justice faced a number of challenges in investigating killings and disappearances, especially with respect to training police in forensic evidence-gathering, witness protection, and fighting corruption.
Atty. Carlos Medina, Executive Director of the AHRC, then delivered a lecture on domestic and international human rights standards and their application in the Philippine context. He discussed the various treaties and laws protecting the right to life, the right to be free from torture, and the right to liberty and security of the person. He explained that human rights tend to suffer most in conflict areas, such as those plagued by the Philippine insurgency. Like Ms. Burgos, Atty. Medina called the audience to action, saying that it was time to do away with “business as usual” and to fight for change with an attitude of “urgency and emergency.”
The four presentations were followed by an open forum where audience members asked questions on human rights education, strengthening international human rights standards, and fighting impunity, among other topics. Atty. Medina, Secretary de Lima, and Ms Burgos patiently fielded questions in the formal setting of the forum before proceeding to the Leong Hall Roof deck for more informal, one-on-one discussions.