GENEVA, Switzerland—Bayan Muna Rep. Eufemia Cullamat is usually the first to wake up at about four o’clock in the morning in this chilly city. She immediately takes a shower to avoid the rush to the bathroom once her other Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (EcuVoice) delegates cramped in every available space at a generous Filipino home wake up.
Rep. Cullamat then scrambles eggs and fries leftover rice for the team’s breakfast. While waiting for dawn, when they are not doing the laundry, she prepares for the rest of the day by writing down her talking points when she meets ambassadors, country Missions representatives, Special Rapporteurs and their officers, and a host of international NGOs one after the other.
Invariably as in today, their team tag along homefood usually leftover steamed or fried rice to be heated in the golden microwave of the UN canteen. For today’s lunch, they heartily feasted on scrambled eggs and spicy canned sardines imported all the way from Manila. When they are lucky, Filipino migrants and foreign friends at times foot the bill for their supper at a modest restaurant.
Or they “patak-patak” (pitch in) from each according to their pocket money, to each according to their appetites.
When the team finally leaves for the Palais des Nations, Rep. Cullamat struggles with the many layers of clothes she had to put on to fight off the chill. Walking to the bus stop, she thinks of her treks on her beloved Surigao del Sur mountains to keep the cold from her mind. She would do it again once night falls and it is time to go back to their living quarters, taking two tram rides, one bus trip and a short yet lonely walk.
Cullamat is in her second week attending meetings and observing the 43rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council here. Exuding humility despite being a nationally-elected official in the Philippines, the UN experts and the diplomats are surprised when she is introduced as an incumbent parliamentarian back home. They do not see any trace of arrogance and smugness one may expect from both elected and appointed officials.
But what “Ka Femia” had to say is more surprising to those the EcuVoice meet inside and outside the sprawling UN compound here. She tells them that despite being a member of the Philippine Congress, the Philippine military has never stopped accusing her of being a supporter of so-called terrorist groups. She tells them her husband is in jail for simply defending their ancestral land from destructive mining. She informs them in her gentle and shy voice that the Lumad in Mindanao are being driven away and killed for fighting for their right to self-determination.
It is not only Rep. Cullamat who moves many to tears here. Nanay (Mother) Llore Pasco never fails to bring out a photo of her two sons killed by suspected police officers operating under the Rodrigo Duterte government’s anti-drug war campaign “Oplan Tokhang.” She tells that her sons Crisanto Antonio, 34, and Juan Carlos, 31, were both killed in 2017 and their bodies were found dumped within University of the Philippines’ Arboretum. She tells them of her pain as a mother losing two sons and the further grief of seeing no justice after two years of police inaction.
Soft-spoken Clarissa Ramos makes UN experts and diplomats sit up when she starts narrating how her lawyer husband Benjamin was killed in cold-blood after being red-baited by the military in their home island of Negros. She tells them how Benjamin defended the farmers from various forms of injustices and for which he was targeted for assassination. As a young mother, she narrates how it pains her to be separated from their four children just to keep them safe.
Three church workers join the EcuVoice team: Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI) Bishop Antonio Ablon, whose life has been repeatedly threatened by the military; Rev. Fr. June Mark Yañez whose Church had been repeatedly vilified for fulfilling its prophetic mission; and Ms Johanna dela Cruz, a worker of the National Council of Churches of the Philippines that the Philippine military says supports so-called terrorists.
The team is joined by Clemente Bautista of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment who spoke about the Philippines being one of the most dangerous countries for environmental defenders before the UNHRC. Raymund Villanueva, a human rights journalist, also joins the team, handing out posters calling for the freedom of his community broadcasting trainee Frenchie Mae Cumpio who was arrested for the trumped up charge of illegal possession of firearms and explosives last February in Tacloban.
Navigating for the EcuVoice team are two veterans of engagements here at the UNHRC: National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) President and concurrent International Association of Democratic Lawyers interim president Edre U. Olalia and Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay. Along with dela Cruz and Bautista, both Olalia and Palabay spoke before the general debates in the UNHRC, successfully debunking denials by the Philippine government that human rights violations are widespread back home.
All the members of the present EcuVoice delegation or their respective organizations have been smeared, labelled, vilified, red-tagged and the subject of hate speech both here and back home by their own government and their trolls and minions.
“The government is mistaken in thinking their denials have any currency among both member and observer-countries of the UNHRC. It is also mistaken in thinking its attacks on the UN system and EcuVoice’s presence here is beneficial to the reputation of the Philippine government. No one believes that the blood flowing in our streets and the bodies filling our jails are merely imagined,” Olalia said.
EcuVoice says it will be back next June for the 44th Regular Session of the UNHRC. It hopes that the UN will pass a stronger resolution calling for actual investigations and more concrete actions on reports of rights violations by the Duterte government.
“What we do here in Geneva entails a lot of sacrifice, including being away from our families and at risk of reprisals. But we do it in the hope that, with the help of the international community, the wanton violation of our rights and freedoms in the Philippines would be abated if not stopped. We are here, we fight our fear, get used to it.” Palabay said. #
Edre U. Olalia
Head of Ecuvoice Delegation to the 43rd UNHRC Session
Cristina E. Palabay