Interview by Hilary Miller.

Please introduce yourself and your cause for advancing human rights in the Philippines.

My name is Vicente M. de Lima II, and I am the brother of Senator Leila de Lima, a duly elected senator of the Republic of the Philippines who was unjustly detained on February 24, 2017 and is currently being held in Camp Crame in Manila. 

Leila is our only family member in government. My whole family—my mother, brother and another sister—would prefer to live a low-profile life in our own respective careers in the private sector.  But, the continued persecution of our sister by the Duterte regime has forced us to go beyond our comfort zone, to help our sister speak the truth about her unjust detention, and to speak about the truth of the human rights situation in our beloved Philippines. The public charges against her are not true. If real justice is to prevail, my sister should be released immediately so that she could serve evermore faithfully and evermore effectively the Philippino people who voted her into office in 2016. 

Upon my sister’s request while she is in detention, I represent her at events, both in the Philippines and abroad, where she is invited to speak about democracy and human rights in the Philippines. To speak on her behalf and to be a messenger of the truth is an honor. 

I’d like to read a letter which Leila has written upon being informed that I would be interviewed for the Geneva Summit’s July newsletter. She sends the following message:

I wish to extend my utmost gratitude to the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy (“Geneva Summit”) for its continuing interest in my case and the general human rights situation in the Philippines. The unwavering support from such prestigious global organizations, such as the Geneva Summit, has contributed immensely in propping up my personal resolve and the collective spirit of the human rights community and the democratic opposition in our country. By providing safe and effective spaces to articulate pressing human rights issues across the globe, the Geneva Summit has been instrumental in pushing the causes of human dignity and equality to be front and center in the agenda of not just the policy makers and opinion shapers in the human rights capital of the world, but also of those who opt to toil in “small places, close to home”, to borrow the words of the venerable Eleanor Roosevelt. I thus consider myself fortunate being accorded by the Geneva Summit two golden opportunities to talk about my case and the human rights climate in my country: first, when my situation as a prisoner of conscience was highlighted during the 11th Summit in March 2019; and, second, when my advocacies and current human rights issues in the Philippines are featured in the Summit’s upcoming newsletter. In both occasions, my brother Vicente de Lima II represented me. Indeed, the world is watching. You in the Geneva Summit—by the spotlight that you have thrown to my case and the human rights calamity in the Philippines—has proven this time and again. You have shown that the dignity and worth of every person, and the yearning for freedom, are the glues that bind all of us in our common humanity. Thank you for your solidarity in my fight and in the struggle of the Filipinos for human rights and democracy. 

What does the human rights situation in the Philippines look like today?

To be sure, democracy and human rights in the Philippines have already been seriously threatened in the almost four years of the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. The Coronavirus pandemic, however, has provided an opportunity to accelerate the evident trend towards dictatorship and the worsening ineptitude of governance in the country. 

The pandemic is first and foremost a public health issue, but President Duterte has confronted COVID-19 in a markedly militaristic fashion. Since the start of the lockdown in mid-March, he has projected the message that “undisciplined” Philippinos are solely responsible for the ensuing problem. This has resulted in the mass arrest of poor workers who reportedly violated lockdown or curfew rules. Some were even put in dog cages. 

Many protestors and online critics were likewise arrested and slapped with various criminal suits, including those for alleged sedition, libel, or cyber libel. The media giant ABS-CBN was shut down and Maria Ressa—the prominent CEO of Rappler—was convicted for cyberlibel. The government has verbally attacked and threatened both of them. 

Also, rather than enacting measures to decisively respond to the pandemic, Durterte prioritized the passage of an anti-terrorism bill that will erase important legal protections to directly harm groups and individuals wrongly deemed “terrorists”.  The bill not only uses an overly broad definition of terrorism in order to apprehend those considered suspicious without a warrant but also mandates two weeks of pre-trial detention. Senator Laila de Lima has told me that if she were allowed to vote, she would have definitely voted against this bill. 

Could you provide an update on your sister’s situation? Where does her case stand now? 

My sister’s case is proceeding at a snail’s pace. Since her detention in 2017, multiple judges have been given her case either because of retirements or because they move on to different cases. This explains the continued delay and denial of justice to my sister, and there are countless examples of how she has been treated unfairly. 

In early May of this year, the Senate amended a rule to allow the use of video conference or other reliable forms of remote electronic means in plenary and committee hearings due to the Coronavirus situation. Adoption of Senate Resolution 372 opens the possibility that my sister could join other senators in plenary sessions or committee hearings via video or audio conferencing despite her actual physical movement being restricted to Camp Crane. Unfortunately, senate leadership rejected that possibility and have barred my sister from joining plenary sessions and voting on significant bills that are being passed into law. Fellow opposition senators have called for Senator de Lima to be allowed to participate in online sessions in the Philippines Senate along with international organizations like the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, Parliamentarians for Global Action, and Liberal International. Sadly, senate leadership has not granted this request. 

Another recent development occurred on June 5, when Senator de Lima’s chief of staff, attorney, and priest were barred from visiting her at Camp Crame. This confirms the incommunicado detention of my sister—a gross violation of her constitutional rights and international human rights principles. For more than a month, Senator de Lima was barred from receiving guests or even essential visitors, including us, her family, lawyers, personal doctors, and priests. She was likewise prevented from having personal meetings with members of her staff. Beginning in the second week of June, Camp Crane authorities relaxed these restrictions and are allowing only scheduled visits on specific days from Senator Leila De Lima’s family members, selected staff, lawyers, and doctors. All, of course, in limited numbers and time.

While acknowledging the gradual permission of visitation rights, my sister considers the present set-up as unreasonable and deficient for her needs as a working senator. There’s very limited access to staff; only her executive and personal assistants are allowed to see her but just for one hour twice a week. None of her technical senate staff who handle her legislative agenda and work can meet with her. So, this unfair treatment continues and we pray that she will be given more visitation rights and freed soon because she is totally innocent of the charges against her.

Do you ever fear for your safety?

There’s always the fear and concern for my safety and the safety of my family because we are associated with Senator Leila de Lima. So, there is always fear. But, we have to go beyond our comfort zone. We have to be courageous because we need to help our sister. We need to help her by telling the truth about her situation, and about the situation in our country. 

How has Senator Leila de Lima continued her work while in detention?

Because my sister is in detention, her work as Senator is very much affected. But, she continues to persevere in making sure that she performs her obligations as an elected official of the Republic of the Philippines. 

In February 2018, Senator Leila, while in detention, introduced Senate Bill 1699 known as the “Human Rights Defenders Act of 2018.” It outlines the government’s obligation to ensure protection of human rights defenders against intimidation and unlawful intrusion by any public or private individual. While a counterpart measure was approved by the House, Senator de Lima’s bill was obstructed by a senate committee. In July 2019, she filed Senate Bill 179 which seeks to ensure the safety of human rights defenders and the unhampered pursuit of their advocacy by proclaiming 12 fundamental freedoms, including the freedom from intimidation or reprisal. 

In February 2020, the Committee for the Freedom of Leila de Lima, Alternative Law Groups, the Human Rights and People Empowerment Center, and De Las Salles University in the Philippines organized an event called the “International Forum of Lawfare.” It shed light on the weaponization of law and a wide array of local and international political figures spoke, emphasizing the need to fight the prevention of democratic rights in society. The keynote message was by Senator Leila de Lima, and I had the honor of reading her message to the forum. 

Also, through her written dispatches from Camp Crame and opinion pieces in the media like Rappler, Senator De Lima continues to speak out against human rights abusers and speak in defense of democracy, both here in the Philippines and beyond our borders. On June 3 2020, Rappler published her opinion piece “Hong Kong today, Philippines tomorrow. They are coming for us.” 

She writes, and I quote: 

As we watch the protesters in Hong Kong, including political leaders who are willing to sacrifice themselves to fight for Hong Kong and its people, what we ought to see are protesters that are fighting for democracy everywhere, including here in our own nation.  Because that is the nature of democracy. To fight for it where you stand, is to fight with it alongside everyone standing for it everywhere. You defend the freedom of everyone everywhere against those who seek to enslave everyone everywhere for their own selfish interests. So I continue to stand with Hong Kong, as I have more than a year ago. Not just because their fierce and fearless protest leaders stood up for me when my freedom was taken, but, more importantly, because they are standing up for the Filipino nation when they stand up against the Chinese government’s violent bullying.

In what ways can democracies pressure the Philippines to improve its human rights record? More specifically, how can democracies help to bring justice to your sister?

In my opinion, the leading democracies from all over the world should make accountable those who are responsible for the grave human rights abuses in the Philippines. They must call out the architects of the failed drug war and all those perpetrators who have carried out thousands of extra-judicial killings. With no threat of accountability there will only be impunity, which means these abusers will continue harming civilians. 

I do believe that there are concrete ways that democracies can hold perpetrators to account. First, the ICC probe of the complaint filed against Duterte for crimes against humanity must continue without delay. Second, there are initiatives in several countries for the adoption of legislation similar to the U.S.’ Magnitsky Act. This type of law must be supported and passed in order to make perpetrators of human rights abuses fearful in our country and all over the world. 

As for my sister, democracies should monitor her case. It is one thing for her to claim her innocence, but it is another for democracies to show it to the world. Leila is doing her part. What she needs is for people to listen and understand how baseless the charges are against her. The judges that decide her case have to know that the world is watching.

Also, countries should adopt resolutions similar to those introduced by the U.S. Congress, E.U. Parliament, and Australia House of Commons that have urged the Philippines government to set my sister free. Conducting congressional inquiries or hearings into the human rights situation in the Philippines and requesting ambassadors or heads of missions in Manila to visit the Senator would be useful. 

What’s a final message that you would like to give to the Geneva Summit community?

I want the world to know that the regime wants to silence us. We must deny them that, stay informed, and continue disseminating true information effectively and responsibly. It is really as simple and as crucial as that. Amid this global pandemic it is all too easy for truth-seekers to divert attention from the evil-doers committing shameful deeds in the Philippines. So, we must be vigilant and never silent in the face of tyranny and abuse. This message I share with the Geneva Summit community, and I know my sister will agree.