Tuesday, 16 March 2010
I speak tonight about something I have raised on a number of occasions in this chamber and an issue which interests me greatly: human rights in the Philippines. I was visited early in March by Bishop Jessie Suarez, who was here as a guest of the Justice and International Mission Unit of the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania. Bishop Suarez is bishop of the southern Luzon jurisdictional area of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, UCCP, which is a partner church of the Uniting Church in Australia.
Bishop Suarez explained that the UCCP is deeply concerned about the levels of violence and human rights abuses in the Philippines under the current government and very fearful that it will continue to escalate in the lead-up to the country’s national elections in May this year. Currently, three of the UCCP’s ministers are receiving death threats by text. Two of those were previously abducted by the security forces. Pastor Berlin Guerrero was abducted by security forces in May 2007 and subjected to torture before being held in detention for a further 15 months. He was released after a Philippines court threw out the charges against him for lack of evidence linking him to the crimes with which he was charged. The latest death threats he has received are directly linked to his speaking out about the torture and abduction that he was subjected to.
Bishop Suarez also spoke to me about the issue of disbanding the paramilitary forces in the Philippines. Incidents of election related violence have already occurred across the country, with 57 people massacred in a single incident in Mindanao in November 2009. Thirty of the victims were journalists, two of the women victims were pregnant and the perpetrators were members of a legalised private army of the local Ampatuan family. The Ampatuans, who occupy many local positions in the province of Maguindanao, made use of their power to maintain militias which the government used in its counterinsurgency programs for many years. Their private army of over 2,000 armed men includes dozens of police officers. The International Crisis Group has stated that the massacre was a result of the central government deliberately nurturing a warlord, Andal Ampatuan Sr, who was allowed to indulge his greed and ambition in exchange for political loyalty.
The 2006 Executive Order 546 of the Philippines legalised paramilitary forces to multiply the counterinsurgency forces of the military and police. Although Executive Order 546 places the supervision and control of these civilian volunteer organisations under the police, local government officials through peace and order councils have a huge say, especially since they are tasked with sourcing the funds needed to sustain the CVOs. In addition to ensuring that those responsible for planning, organising and carrying out the massacre in November are brought to justice, there is a need to end all private and local funding of police and military auxiliaries and ban civilian militias. The government of the Philippines should revoke Executive Order 546.
Bishop Suarez mentioned the issue of election monitoring for the upcoming elections. There is a great fear about the security and effectiveness of the upcoming elections. Bishop Suarez encouraged partner churches and governments, including the Australian government, to do anything they can to promote independent monitoring of the elections, and I will be taking that up with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Stephen Smith. Australia should look at all possible avenues through which it can help to facilitate and participate in independent election monitoring.
Bishop Suarez also raised the general issue of ongoing human rights concerns. He told me that, while the number of murders related to members of the security forces has steadily declined since 2006, harassment of human rights activists, anticorruption campaigners and critics of the government has continued. For example, 43 health workers were arrested by the military on 6 February as they were attending a community health forum in the municipality of Morong in the province of Rizal. They have been accused of participating in bomb-making activities. Among the detainees is Dr Alexis Mones, a UCCP lay member and previous UCCP community health ministries worker who is a highly esteemed member of their church.
Dr Melecia Velmonte, who owns the retreat centre where the training was being conducted, asserted that the military had no witnesses to their search operations and could easily have planted the ammunitions. This, of course, unfortunately is commonplace in the Philippines. Also, Dr Velmonte gave a lecture on infectious diseases at the training but was not arrested with the other participants. She and her son, Bob, demanded to see a search warrant when the military and police began their raid but they were merely brushed aside. It was only after the participants of the training were already handcuffed that Police Superintendent Marion P Balonglong showed Bob a search warrant. The detainees have been charged with illegal possession of explosives.
The Chair of the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, the CHRP, visited the detainees and stated: ‘They are continuously handcuffed and blindfolded. They are not allowed to sleep. They are not allowed to feed themselves.’ Of course, this is what we know as torture. The commission has questioned why those arrested remain in military custody when it was a civilian court that issued the search warrant. The commission has called on the Philippine authorities to ensure that the detainees have access to their lawyers, relatives and medical personnel in compliance with Philippine law. The UCCP has called for the respect of the human rights of Dr Montes and the 42 other detained health workers, including their rights to legal counsel, access to visitors and due process. The UCCP has stated that Dr Montes is a respected leader in the healing ministry of the UCCP and have called for his release. The World Council of Churches has also called for the detainees’ immediate release.
Bishop Suarez also raised the issue of support for striking workers at the Nestle factory in the Philippines. There is an ongoing dispute with Nestle Philippines at the Cabuyao factory where the workers have been on strike for over 10 years. The workers who have not found new jobs live in a makeshift slum and many have been forced to withdraw their children from school due to not having the income to support them. The workers and the church have argued that Nestle in the Philippines has refused to comply with the decision of the Supreme Court of the Philippines in March 2008 to allow a decent retirement plan to be included in the collective bargaining agreement for the factory. They are asking that Nestle Philippines reinstates the striking workers at the Cabuyao plant and negotiates in good faith on the collective bargaining agreement. They argue that employees and former employees from the Nestle Cabuyao plant must receive full retirement benefits.
Unfortunately, I will not have enough time to say all I wanted to say about that particular dispute, but it is unfortunate that such a wealthy company such as Nestle would engage in a strike—which I will talk about in the future—which has involved the murder of union officials around that strike action, and that they have engaged in that action over the mere issue of including retirement benefits in the enterprise agreement that is being negotiated. It is a shame that that is a standard they would not apply here or in Europe but they seem willing to apply it in the Third World. I will speak on that issue further at another time.