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A Dirty Secret in the Philippines

October 30, 2003 ·  , Published in The Washington Times

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Special correspondent John Zarocostas interviewed the Rev. Shay Cullen of the Missionary Society of St. Columban last week in Geneva about the plight of street children in the Philippines, where the Irish-born Roman Catholic priest works.

Question: Can you elaborate on the death squads that are killing street children in the Philippines?

Answer: Several years ago, we were contacted by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Davao City. They asked us to help them to look into the problem of mainly street children who were being shot dead by death squads. These are a group of men riding around on black motorcycles, all like a team dressed in a kind of a black uniform.

The death squads are armed and obviously connected by radios, as if they’re official, and killing children on the streets in pools of blood. So we did an investigation and contacted various NGOs to help, insofar as it was possible, to identify the children who were killed. Because some are homeless, they’re vagrants, just grown up in the streets, nobody knows who they are. We found out many of them were 12, 13, 14, 15 years old.

Since 2000, it was Mayor Benjamin de Guzman who was in charge [of Davao City], but we got no satisfaction. So I began an Internet lobbying campaign to challenge what he was doing. Speaking at an international conference and calling for the setup of an international court for children’s rights. Or a part of the International Criminal Court should have a section for children, specifically.

But he got very angry with us, and he sued me. But that’s the way to try and stifle us, keep us from speaking out, speaking to the media, telling our story, standing up for human rights. That was in the year 2000, and we fought that case in court, defending our right to protect children.

Eventually we won that case, but the killings went on. He lost the next election two months later and his rival, Rodrigo Duterte, came to power — and he’s still in power — and the killings got worse, and went on. And this gang still acted with impunity, shooting and killing.

Q: Overall, how many children have been killed in Philippine cities?

A: I can’t say overall. They do not report. It’s covered up. Even in Davao City and surrounding areas, we are looking at 56 [killings] over the last three years. … They are reckoned to be minors, but we cannot fully confirm that because they don’t have birth certificates. … A rough estimate is something like that. But in other cities, more have been reported in newspapers.

Q: And in total?

A: We reckon hundreds [of children] are being killed in cities all over the place. Three were beheaded in Quezon City, right in front of the congressional building — well that’s last year. I can only say hundreds.

But many more are picked up and tortured, and beaten and jailed illegally in terrible, terrible conditions. We’re working on rescuing them. But how many are killed may be many more than we are estimating.

Q: In the U.N. Human Rights Committee meeting last week, the issue of the death squads came up. Were you satisfied by the expert commissioners, and what were the responses of Philippine authorities?

A: Well, we briefed the members of the committee, and they responded very positively — with shock. They did not realize the extent of this killing of street children.

We went to the hearings, and they really questioned thoroughly the members of the Philippine delegation, who had no answers.

They had no way to explain these killings. So we’re very happy we were able to take up this issue with the help of the [District-based] World Organization Against Torture and bring it to the attention of the Human Rights Committee.

Q: Do you think Philippine authorities will follow up, now that the issue in the U.N. spotlight?

A: Well, we still have to make this known to them through these reports and through the media.

The world is looking at this, and they will sit up and take notice. And we hope President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo will withdraw her endorsement of the mayor of Davao City as her crime consultant, because his methods are brutal and he espouses violence.

Q: Your organization has also visited a lot of prisons. What did you see?

A: Well, we have visited 37 prisons. The conditions are subhuman — the children are mixed in with the adults, who are criminals. In many cases, they are raped inside jail.

As punishment, the females are handed over to prisoners or to guards and are sexually molested and abused. The males are also sexually abused, because they’re mixed in. The crowding is unbelievable.

We have just been to Novotas, in Metro Manila, the latest prison visit, and here we have 17 minors mixed in with 33 adults in a room adequate for about 15 people.

Q: How young are these children?

A: In our visits to different jails, we see them as young as 10 years old.

Q: How many prisons that you’ve visited are not up to minimum standards?

A: We’ve been to 37 jails, and 80 percent would be considered substandard — absolutely. And not only that, but we see violations of basic human rights under the conditions in which they live.

We went to the Olongapo center [on Subic Bay]. It’s not even a jail — it’s a child and women care center — but they have prison cells there that are bare floors. There’s no toilet — a hole in the floor full of excrement — with rats, and insects, mosquitoes, and sleeping on concrete floors, being beaten, having cold water thrown on them.

Food is placed on the floor outside the bars, to make them reach out like animals and eat with their hands, on the floor, through the bars in some cases. And this is a project in the city plan that is funded by the World Bank.

Q: In your deliberations here in Geneva with human-rights experts, was there any mention that a U.N. rapporteur on extrajudicial killings would look into these problems?

A: No, they have not done that. But we have made submissions to the special expert for arbitrary detentions, and we are planning to present something to the special expert.

The problem is, we cannot get enough witnesses. The children will not be able to testify, or to give their statements and stand by them, because they’re so scared of being identified and then being assassinated.

Q: What about the special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings? Is there a possibility she will look into the issue?

A: Well, we certainly hope they will look into in and do something about it, to rescue some of these children and bring them out of the area so they could testify and go public.

Unfortunately, they’ve not yet been able to do it, because even the NGOs in that area are intimidated and threatened. They’re really quite afraid to move in this way, even though in our foundation we have promised them financial support and protection of those children.

Q: Have you received any threats?

A: In my work, I work confronting the sex mafia, the politicians, the military, and they give us their usual threats. I have been arrested, beaten up, put into prison, handcuffed, they even fired at us.

Q: With blanks?

A: No, they fire real bullets. But we don’t know in what direction, you know. It’s quite scary when they shoot. They did not hit any of us, but it happens.

Q: What makes you keep on going?

A: The condition of the children is far worse than what we have to endure. The risks that we take are minimal when you compare them to what the kids are suffering in the prisons, or picked up and taken away and tortured and then just assassinated.

We don’t need much more motivation than that. And I have a good team at Preda, we have very good workers.

Q: These children are looked down upon by Philippine society?

A: The children on the streets are obviously evidence of social neglect and the failure of the state to look after its children and to protect them. The whole justification of government is to protect the public, and the most vulnerable come first. So there’s a failure of government, number one.

And two, there’s a failure of the local society to live up to basic moral standards, help the poor and so on. Very few charities are dealing with this in a robust way.

And third, the children, of course: They live in the streets, and they’re an eyesore. They’re called “pests,” so they have to be swept up and got rid of. And this is how the merchants see it, because the kids may steal food from the market to eat or they’re nuisances to be got rid of.

Q: How closely connected is the trafficking of children with the sex industry in the Philippines?

A: Well, that’s one of our main areas of work for many, many years — tracking and investigating the trafficking of children and minors in sex bars.

We go to the brothels, and we do some undercover investigations to identify the minors. then we take steps to rescue them, bring them out.

When they recover and are willing and ready, then they will testify against their traffickers and abusers.

Many of those involved are foreigners — of every nationality, so to speak, working together in the sex industry, trading young minors for sex among themselves and providing them for many of the sex tourists who come flying in, invited by the clubs and bars.

If [the adult trafficker is] a German, they bring in Germans; if it’s a Brit, they bring in the British tourists — pick them up at the airport, drive them to the hotel and provide young girls for them.

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