The ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human beings. In fact the roots of human rights are to be found in the dignity that belongs to each human being. (Gaudium et Spes, 27)
In the reality of the State, in public powers, in man himself and in God his creator… these rights are “universal, inviolable, inalienable.” (Pacem in Terris)
Yet in the past 45 years of my life, as a manager of several newspapers and as the mother of a victim of enforced disappearance, I have seen, heard, and experienced how many of those who have been sworn to protect these very rights are the same people who violate the rights.
My main dilemma after my son was abducted was how to live as a Christian, one who loves as Christ loves amidst the circumstance of a polarized society such as the Philippines. How could one love the suspected perpetrators of the abuses? And why would one distance oneself from perceived nonbelievers by others when it is from them that protection and help are received?
It is like a cruel joke, the law enforcers and protectors were my suspects and respondents and those who were helping and protecting me were those perceived to be rabble rousers, the provocateurs, and the activists.
The single event of the abduction catapulted me to a life I have never imagined, a life where the reality of contradictions had to be lived. Unseen by most, within these contradictions is an open desert tract abounding with opportunities to bring Jesus amidst the barrenness. It is simply a matter of choosing my response.
For those who are reading the name Jonas Joseph Burgos for the first time, let me level the field.
Jonas is my middle child, an agriculturist, abducted by State forces on April 28, 2007, presumably because of his organizing activities among farmers.
Fifteen years after the abduction and still missing, the family still suffers from the impact of his absence. It took six years for the Supreme Court to establish that the abduction is an enforced disappearance case and that those responsible are members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
And even if the courts have ordered the AFP to return Jonas to his family and turn over all documents that has to do with the abduction, no order was complied with and no one has been cited in contempt. The main suspect was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Just like the case of Reena Rasaili, a 16 year old Nepalese. It took the courts five years to establish that her death was an execution and torture case perpetuated by the Nepal Security Forces during the war.
Reena was taken from her home on the night of February 13, 2004, by 20 uniformed armed soldiers of the Royal Nepalese Army. It was only in 2009 that the Supreme Court in Nepal affirmed the findings of the Nepal National Human Rights Commission, ordering a thorough investigation.
But holding the perpetrators accountable was elusive. Just like the Jonas Case, the suspect in Reena’s case was acquitted in 2013 for lack of evidence.
Reena was accused of being a Maoist, which she denied, while being dragged away. Jonas was likewise screaming he was just an activist as he was dragged to a waiting vehicle.
The next morning, Reena’s family found her body in a corn field near their village, her blouse lifted up to her neck revealing scratches on her breasts, her trousers pulled down to mid-thigh. She was raped then shot in the eye, the head and the chest.
Jonas was never seen again.
Not being able to obtain justice in Nepal, the Advocacy Forum, Nepal and REDRESS assisted the family and brought the case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Finally on May 23, 2022, the UNHRC found Nepal responsible for the extrajudicial killing and torture, including rape, and several other violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Nepal ratified in 1991.
The Jonas case was filed with the UNHRC in October 2009, through the help of Karapatan, an alliance of human rights organizations in the Philippines.
However, the Philippines has not ratified the Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearances. Repeated intentions by the UN Working Group Against Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance to visit the Philippines for fact finding purposes has been ignored by the Philippine government.
UNHRC member Hélène Tigroudja, stated: “Nepal has failed to demonstrate how a 16-year-old unarmed girl posed any threat to a squad of twenty fully armed soldiers, much less justify how her rape and summary execution could serve any legitimate security aim.”
At the hearing of Jonas’ case, the defense failed to demonstrate how an unarmed man, having lunch alone in a restaurant could be a threat to security forces.
Unfortunately, the Committee does not have any power to prosecute but may impose the sole sanction to shame states before the international community.
The Committee could only urge Nepal to conduct a thorough and effective investigation into Reena’s arbitrary detention, torture, including rape and execution and holding those responsible to be accountable; as well as the violation of her gender rights and rights as a child. The Committee recommended a series of reparation measures, including the need for Nepal to provide rehabilitation to Reena’s parents, and to offer an apology and build a memorial for Reena.
The Philippine Supreme Court granted the Writ of Amparo to Jonas’ family but unless and until the institutions cooperate, these orders remain inutile.
Remove the names of Jonas and Reena, and the circumstances will fit most cases of human rights violations. Whether it be in the Philippines, Nepal or elsewhere in the world, the victims of human rights abuses suffer the same torture. They must live with both hopeful and despairing episodes. They must endure the wait for the wheels of justice to turn. They must constantly challenge the unjust structures at every move they take in the search for justice, armed only with the resolve to uncover the truth.
Reena’s sister, Geeta Rasaili sees this decision of the UNHRC as a door through which they would obtain justice eventually. Geeta hopes that “the government will act promptly to implement the recommendations of the Committee and provide justice to her family.” Adding that “only then will the soul of my deceased sister rest in peace.”
Jonas’ brother, Sonny, in response to a question, how long will you continue the search, answered, “If there is something that would truly shatter Jonas when he returns is to know that the family has stopped looking for him. We will stop only when we find him.”
The harshest torture suffered by the family of the disappeared is not knowing when the torment would end.
Meanwhile, by living the search, we crossed paths with people who blessed us with opportunities to forgive and people who needed to be accompanied, and be reminded that the dignity given to each of us by God cannot be taken away. Contradictions in the world should not deprive us of the truth that our human rights is universal, inviolable, and inalienable.
Edita Burgos is a doctor of education and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. Gunmen — believed to be soldiers — abducted her son Jonas Burgos in Manila in April 2007. He is still missing.