‘I vowed that from then on, I would use my liberty to promote Asian solidarity and the rights of others.’ – Interview with Ritz Lee B. Santos III, Executive Director of BALAOD Mindanaw
5 April 2021 2:25 pm

In this month’s e-newsletter, FORUM-ASIA talked with Ritz Lee B. Santos III, Executive Director of BALAOD Mindanaw, FORUM-ASIA’s member in the Philippines. In the interview, Ritz shared with us how ordinary people doing extraordinary work keeps him going, a defining moment that completely changed his thoughts on solidarity and how upholding human rights is a duty.

How did you become involved with human rights? And how did you become involved with FORUM-ASIA?

It all started when I was in university when I was a member of the youth group of a political party. We wanted very much to have a human rights programme but admittedly, we lacked the capacity.

It was very timely that we were invited to attend a national youth summit which brought together youth organisations to discuss rights issues and how young people can play a role as frontliners in defending human rights. At the time, our group’s objective was primarily to strengthen the party and my role was to recruit people to join us. But the opposite happened ‒ five years later, I left the party but stayed in human rights because I grew interested in the work.

In 2002, I joined the Public Interest Environmental Law Office – Tanggol Kalikasan, a member of FORUM-ASIA which works with local communities to protect the environment. As its Advocacy Officer and Community Coordinator, Tanggol Kalikasan tasked me to attend and represent the organisation in meetings with FORUM-ASIA.

Then in 2005, I joined BALAOD Mindanaw. It was my desire to continue engagement with FORUM-ASIA. Year after year, I would send letters of inquiry if FORUM-ASIA was accepting new members but since it already had a wide membership in the Philippines, we had to wait. Three years ago, BALAOD Mindanaw finally became a FORUM-ASIA member.

Traditionally, BALAOD Mindanaw has been a public interest law group with a focus on agrarian reform ‒ the recognition of land and its links to social justice. When I assumed leadership in 2018, we started working on more civil and political rights. Agrarian reform is also a human rights issue. FORUM-ASIA believed in our cause, capacity and dedication to working on human rights issues.

What motivated you to become involved? And has that motivation changed over the years?

There was a time when I did not believe in international solidarity. I thought, we have so many problems in the Philippines, how would we have the luxury of time and resources to respond to other countries’ issues?

That all changed when I attended the youth summit on human rights and met several Myanmar activists. There was a session on international solidarity that highlighted a human rights issue in Myanmar as an example.

It was a simple exercise ‒ the participants from Myanmar had tape over their mouths which represented their stifled right to free expression. The other participants were asked to remove the tape. As I was removing the tape from the participants mouths, she started crying and thanked me. It may sound cliché but I was moved. I vowed that from then on, I would use my liberty to promote Asian solidarity and the rights of others.

I admit sometimes my source of motivation changes but I believe that human rights issues are far greater than any one individual. I see many ordinary people doing extraordinary work in creating positive impact in human rights, and that gives fuels my enthusiasm to continue in this line of work.

Please tell us one of the most inspiring moments for you in your work in the past?

It was more than a decade ago when I was working with BALAOD Mindanaw, when we served as legal counsel for the cases brought by Sumilao farmers to reclaim their 144-hectre ancestral land. After having lost the case before the Supreme Court, we realised we did not have any other recourse but to take the issue beyond the courtroom.

We journeyed with 55 Sumilao farmers for more than 1,700 km from Mindanao to Manila in their bid to reclaim dignity and the rights to their land. The walk, titled ‘Walk for Land, Walk for Justice,’ was a long and emotionally challenging journey for all of us. We often had to rely on the good will of the public for help during our three-month long journey.

But the walk was a success. The farmers were victorious in various aspects of community legal empowerment and national policy development including the enactment of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Extension with Reforms (CARPER) or Republic Act 9700.

The smiles on the farmers’ faces when they were delivered a tremendous victory made it all worthwhile . I was reassured that what we had been fighting for was not only for these farmers, but their children and generations to come.

Legal empowerment through paralegalism and capacity building can be an effective strategy in advancing the rights of the marginalised. By providing legal counsel to the farmers and building their legal understanding and knowledge, they were empowered to challenge State policies to recognise their rightful claims. I continue to meet ordinary people from all walks of life doing great work and this inspires me.

What do you experience as the main challenges as someone working on human rights? And how do you deal with such obstacles in your work?

It is challenging and frustrating when it seems like the same issues we fight for now are the very same issues that we were fighting decades ago. It sometimes feels like we do not know what else do we need to do because generations have been fighting for the very same issues.

Additionally, those fighting for rights often face threats and harassments. I personally have been red tagged by the Philippine government and have received threats. Security is very important not just for me but also for my family. As preventive measures, we are building our capacity on protecting ourselves physically and digitally.

Dealing with these challenges and frustrations, I have tangible, visual reminders of what human rights means and a collage of the women I love and women creating impact in the field of human rights. Every morning, I start my day looking at this collage of the women I look up to.

If you could give a message to the new generation of people working on human rights or development, what would it be?

It is not only our responsibility to fight for human rights, it is also our duty to win the fight. As long as there are those who resist realising human rights for all, there will be challenges. Do not grow frustrated. There is hope. Remember it is our duty to win this fight.