Yesterday morning I was interviewed by a student journalist from Chicago about human rights in the Philippines.

“I’m interested in knowing what the major human rights issues are… or at least your perspective on what they are,” she asked in her preliminary email the day before.

During our phone conversation she told me of how she had spoken to others and received a variety of answers: the sex trade, armed rebels, the poor state of education and health, and extrajudicial killings and disappearances (ie. government sanctioned murder and kidnapping of undesirables).

She wanted to know which I thought was the most pressing issue of all of these.

For me all those problems are important, but I chose none of them as the most pressing human rights issue. For me they are all symptoms of the greater problem, that of poverty borne of a lack of true sovereignty and true democracy.

Poverty drives the sex trade. Poverty results in less children going to school. Poverty has a clear link to poor health. And poverty spurs rebellion to the existing order—called “terrorism” by the ruling class—which then results in violent government repression of that rebellion.

Thus for me, poverty is the cause of this suffering, and the government the cause of poverty.

Questions of human rights fascinate me as people today usually assume that this is a concept that has always been held dear by all. People often forget that general (but by no means complete) acceptance of universal human rights is a very modern idea—recall that even the lofty American Bill of Rights excluded women and people of colour.

There is nothing in human nature that makes acceptance of these rights a given. In fact, this concept is only sixty years old. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948, and the covenants that were set up to make this declaration enforceable [don’t ask me how] have yet to be ratified by all the world’s nations (the US, for example, has refused to sign on completely and gave itself many formal exceptions to compliance).

Human rights must be recognized and desired by the ruling classes for them to be implemented. And ruling classes will only desire them if it serves their own interests. And it can only be in their interest if the ruling classes are members of the ruled classes—this is one of the proclaimed virtues of democracy.

In a semi-feudal society like the Philippines, there is a distinct division between the rulers, and the masses they rule. The former do not understand, nor do they want to understand, the latter. And the latter have no realistic hopes of integrating with the former.

The government is made up of elites and rules for the elites, thus it cannot be truly democratic. How can human rights be respected if the people are not represented?

More than that, even if the government wanted to combat the poverty that causes suffering it simply cannot. The government of the Philippines has its hands tied due to commitments and treaties to foreign powers. Put simply the Philippines is not truly an independent state. It does not now, nor has it ever (since the time of colonization) had the sovereignty needed to act.

Right from its birth after WWII, when the Americans ‘granted’ the islands ‘independence,’ its decisions had to be approved. Filipinos could make decisions about how to implement policy, but policy (both economic and foreign) remained under Washington’s guidance.

For example, the Bell Trade Act passed by the US Congress after the war provided for ‘free’ trade between the two countries. This deprived the country of economic independence. It ensured that raw agricultural products and mineral ores would be exported to the US based on need, while it tied the Phils into accepting unlimited entry of surplus manufactured goods. This prevented the development of domestic industry.

Worse, the bill gave equal rights to US citizens and corporations to Filipino citizens in the right to acquire and use natural resources.

To this day the government cannot make a decision without first asking permission from its foreign master. To this day foreign businesses have more power than the peoples of the land.

Modern day Philippines has no major domestic industry, virtually no domestic manufacturing base–even match sticks are produced elsewhere.

The Philippines has always been dependent on foreign governments and organizations, from the US, to the IMF and World Bank, the economy has always been dictated from without.

The elites, as the middle-men between exploiter and exploited, do well so they have no interest in changing the status quo. Of course the masses rebel, the poverty is unsightly, and the indignities of the people embarrass them—but they need only roll up the dark tinted windows of their expensive foreign-made cars until they are back inside their gated communities. There they can return to the fantasy land where they imagine themselves ‘equals’ to their masters.

So when asked what the biggest human rights problem in the country is I have only one answer: the government itself.

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***all images: ©2008 alex felipe / All Rights Reserved.

Please contact the photographer with use inquiries***

stats to the end of June 2008 (from

Stats to the end of June 2008 (from

For more of the above stats visit:

The UN sent a special rapporteur (Philip Alston ) to the Philippines to investigate the alarming numbers of civilians killed or disappeared.  Activists pointed the finger at the government and military.  He confirmed these accusations in his 2007 report.  To download his final report please visit:

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Other human rights related posts:

Gold: Our Conflict Diamonds…

After Arroyo, Then What?!?

Canada to Spread Democracy in the Phils?