April 19, 2014
Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, activist from PhilippinesSunday, December 15, 2013
‘I envy the Argentine human rights movement’
Born: Philippines, May, 1963
Job: Secretary-General of the
Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)
Education: Foreign Relations
Masters at the University of the Philippines
Languages spoken: Spanish, English, Tagalog, Cebuano
Human Rights activist Mary Aileen D. Bacalso, Secretary-General of the Asian Federation against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) received the Foreign Ministry’s Emilio Mignone International Human Rights Award on December 10. Bacalso was honoured for her extensive trajectory, courage and work ethic in human rights, in a ceremony held in the San Martín Palace that was presided by Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, Human Rights Secretary Martín Fresneda and CELS director Gastón Chillier. Foreign dignitaries, politicians and human rights activists such as Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzón could be seen in the audience as the ceremony's leaders gave speeches in praise of Bacalso and how the prize was an important step in fomenting an international human rights movement. In an interview with the Herald given before the award ceremony, Bacalso spoke passionately about her struggle in the UN to pass enforced disappearances legislation, the progress and pitfalls in the Asian human rights movement, and how the Argentine human rights movement has been a major influence across the globe.
How did you first become in involved in Human Rights?
I started when I was 16 as part of the Student Catholic Action group in 1979. We were encouraged by nuns to do social work, working in urban poor communities. I became a part of an anti-fascist alliance for students. This was at the height of (Ferdinand) Marcos’ dictatorship, when students were repressed. From that point on I never stopped.
How many forced disappearances took place in the Philippines during the last dictatorship?
There are 2,218 documented cases of disappearances from 1971 to 1986. Even though martial law officially ended in 1981, it really continued until 1986. The problem is at the time when most of the disappearances took place no one could document them because of martial law. So the real number is much higher. We are still learning about new cases all the time.
Can you tell me about your husband’s illegal detention?
My husband disappeared in 1988, only two months after we were married. Like in Argentina’s last military dictatorship, the Philippine government made him disappear in the name of getting rid of “subversion.” They claimed my husband was treasurer of the Communist Party. Seven armed men kidnapped him in public, forcing him into a car without a licence plate, shouting that he was a thief. I immediately reported the case to an NGO of forced disappearances and searched for him for three months in different military camps. But my husband was released only after a prisoner held with him escaped, and sent me an anonymous note telling me where he was being held. I told the military officials that I knew where he was and the next day they released him. They said they would release him on the condition that I stop my human rights work, saying I would be killed. I said OK but it only inspired me to work harder—it was a turning point in my activism.
Are these types of human rights violations now being tried in court?
There are no trials for cases in the 1970s or 1980s. It’s difficult, but they are taking place ofnmore recent cases. I envy the human rights movement here, and what it has accomplished in the fight against impunity.
Do you have a compensation law?
We do have a compensation class action suit representing 10,000 victims but only those from the Marcos era (Dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos). They won 1,000 dollars—it isn’t much but it’s something for the victims who are really very poor.
What has been your involvement in the UN Convention for the Protection for enforced disappearances?
I participated in its drafting from 2003 to 2005, working with Fedefam and Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (founding line) President Marta Vásquez and several other human rights leader around the world. I was present in all the sessions for those three years, representing AFAD. Argentina was one, if not the strongest, one pushing important provisions.
What are the politics behind the process?
Latin America was very progressive in the negotiation process. While the Asian countries were the exact opposite, remaining if not silent very negative against the provisions. China was insistent in putting national security as a justification for making people disappear. The Philippines was present in the process. Right when the French ambassador presiding over the commission was going to approve the final text of the convention the US objected saying it had reservations on the right of justice and truth. If the US were to sign and ratify this treaty, it could have a domino effect on many countries like the Philippines, unfortunately it has failed to do so.
Which Asian countries have the worst human rights records?
Sri Lanka is very bad, one third of the population was killed during the recent civil war and there are thousands of disappeared. In the Kashmir region of India, where there are mass graves, there are 98,000 cases. Argentina sent a forensic team secretly to investigate mass graves last year. But it’s very difficult because the Muslims are against exhumations. In Indonesia they have started imitating the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, walking around in a circle in the government house every Thursday demanding to know where their loved ones are, but instead of using handkerchief as their symbol they use umbrellas.
Where is it improving?
In the Philippines. We had 300 cases in the presidency of Arroyo, but now with Aquino’s administration we only have 25 cases. It has improved in terms of numbers, but not in terms of trials.
Can you tell me about AFAD (Asian Federation Against forced Disappearances)?
It started in 1998; we were encouraged to create an organization like Fedefam in Asia. We started working in groups having joint activities in the UN. We now have 11 member organizations around Asia that have joined our association, from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Thailand Sri Lanka, etc.
What kind of difficulties have you faced?
In 2004, our chairperson was Munir Said Thalid. He was killed after he was poisoned with arsenic when flying to the Netherlands. He was a human rights activist from Indonesia. When the next session to write up the convention of forced disappearances was held, several UN countries were still hesitant about the convention. But when I mentioned Munir had been at the last session and now he could not be there because of his activism, it helped change some minds because many had known him. I think it played a role in passing the convention.