Combating the Lawfare virus

The start of the new decade has been far from kind. Among the series of unfortunate events that have shocked the world is the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus (now called COVID-19) that has claimed thousands of lives. Unknown to many, however, is the spread of another “virus” that can be just as deadly or destructive as COVID-19—a virus that attacks democracy and strips us of our basic human rights; a virus that weaponizes the law to persecute political adversaries.

This virus is called “Lawfare,” a disease that has afflicted leaders resulting to their complete disregard for others and justification for abuses. A portmanteau of the words “law” and “warfare”, lawfare depicts the spurious use of the legal and judicial system to eliminate those who criticize the government. Hence, raising awareness about this silent pandemic and drawing significant multi-sectoral cooperation regarding this issue is vital.

This exactly is the main objective of the one-day forum entitled “International Forum on Lawfare: Weaponizing the Law Against Democratic Dissent,” organized by De La Salle University, Alternative Law Groups, Human Rights and People Empowerment Center, and the Committee for the Freedom of Leila de Lima, with the support of Rappler as media partner. 

This milestone event, held yesterday February 21,  provided a venue for parliamentarians, political leaders, constitutionalists, academicians, human rights activists, researchers, civil society leaders and media practitioners across the globe to convene, share insights, and discuss how lawfare is being employed by oppressive regimes to silence dissent and political competitors.

La Salle Brother Armin Luistro opened the conference with a call for resistance and action. He was followed by a defiant and determined Senator Leila De Lima, a prime mover of the forum, who delivered the keynote address. Clearly, she is not broken from her unjust detention, now three years in duration this week, and that she is even stronger today in championing human rights.

The forum was divided into six breakout sessions, to wit: “Lawyering & Lawfare”, “Media & Lawfare,” “Political Opposition & Lawfare,” “Civil and Political Rights & Lawfare,”  “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights & Lawfare” (subdivided to categories “Women, Youth, LGBT” and “Labor, Urban Poor and Agriculture”), and “Religion & Lawfare.”

Forum speakers were asked to share their experiences and views on the misuse of the legal and judicial system to attack personalities or institutions that are critical to the government. They included Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Senators Kiko Pangilinan, Sonny Trillanes, and Risa Hontiveros, Rappler founder Maria Ressa, Deans Pacifico Agabin and Chel Diokno, Commission on Human Rights Chair Chito Gascon, current and former Representatives Kit Belmonte, Eufemia Culiamat, Sarah Elago, Carlos Zarate Walden Bello, Teddy Baguilat, Neri Colmenares, Tom Villarin, and Teddy Casiño, senatorial candidates Samira Gutoc and Leody de Guzman, priests Fathers Albert Alejo and Flavie Villanueva, human rights lawyers Edre Olalia and Teddy Te, journalists Glenda Gloria and John Nery, and last but not the least representatives of sectoral, youth and other stakeholder organizations affected by Lawfare, including families that have been victimized by the war against drugs.

Discussions were moderated by such distinguished academic leaders and prominent citizens such as Dr. Socorro Reyes, Ana Santos, Cielito Arlegue, Gian Arabejo, Nymia Simbulan, Pastor Hesed Alvarez, and former Secretaries Ging Deles and Dinky Soliman.

The forum also had a number of foreign speakers, delivering in person or through video their solidarity messages to Senator De Lima while also sharing their owne experiences and insights of Lawfare. These include Cambodian parliamentarian (in exile) Mu Sochua, influential women and leader Jayanthi Devo Balaguru, French progressive politician Marina Mesure, Hong Kong activists Joshua Wong and Emily Lau, Princeton University professor and one of the top international law thinkers of the world Richard Falk,  and David Kaye who is United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinon and expression.

I am proud to be one of the forum convenors and was assigned to deliver the synthesis and final remarks.

Some issues that were discussed as glaring examples of weaponizing the law as a tool for abuse of vindictive leaders were the relentless political persecution of Senator de Lima, the quo warranto petition against ABS-CBN, the constant attack on Rappler, the removal of Maria Lourdes Sereno as Chief Justice, and the conspiracy to commit sedition case filed against Senator Trillanes, Fr. Albert, and Fr. Flavie.

The issue on the “red-tagging” of the Duterte administration, by virtue of Executive Order (EO) 70 which was implemented in December 2018, was also one of the topics discussed during the forum. Good people, like human rights lawyer Ben Ramos in Negro island, have been killed because of such redtagging. Young people, like Myles Albasin who is also entering her second year of detention and more recently the Leyte 5, have had guns and explosives planted as evidence so that they would not be able to avail of the right to bail.

With the success of yesterday’s International Forum on Lawfare, I am hoping that many will be enlightened on this global pandemic threat before it arrives on their own doorstep and before it is too late to protect themselves. I am confident that this is just the beginning of bigger efforts to fight the misuse of law for political ends.

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