September 19, 2010

The fifth Conference of Lawyers in the Asia Pacific (COLAP V) was held in Manila, Philippines on September 18 and 19, 2010 under the banner “Human Rights and Peace Amidst the Global Economic Crisis and Conflict.” It brought together over 250 lawyers from 23 countries, mainly from the Asia Pacific, along with guests from around the world, to address the common problems facing the region’s lawyers and to promote the cause of human rights and peace.

Sponsored by the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, COLAP is the largest gathering of human rights lawyers in Asia. This year, it was organized by the National Union of People’s Lawyers of the Philippines. Delegates developed strategies and recommendations for future work and collaboration over two days of workshops and plenaries.The conference reaffirmed that human rights must be universal, indivisible and supreme.

It further reaffirmed that conflicts and war will necessarily continue to plague the region until basic human rights, both political and economic, are universally realized and enjoyed. The global economic crisis has undermined and reversed progress toward achieving that goal, impoverished untold millions more, causing widespread disease and starvation, increasing the likelihood of political strife and conflict. Delegates labored to develop strategies to promote full realization of human rights while reaffirming the illegality of wars of aggression and other acts which deny the rights of people to self determination.


The conference recalled the long history of colonialism and neo-colonialism in the region, the wars of aggression in Vietnam and Korea and the ongoing aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It demands the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops from the region. Peoples in the region must rise up in struggle for peaceful coexistence as a means to mutual prosperity. All people have the right to live in peace, which is enshrined in Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan, recognized in the non-written Constitution of Costa Rica and declared the United Nations Charter. Only through the work of the people and their lawyers shall peace prevail.
The conference calls for the immediate removal of foreign military bases or presence in any form which amount to the crime of aggression and are inconsistent with the rule of law and the right to peace. It particularly notes that the US has stolen Okinawa’s best land and subjected its population to victimization by, and servitude to, its military forces. It calls for the creation of a nuclear-free zone in the region as a step towards banning all nuclear weapons. Every nation must promote peace education throughout its population. We condemn the US and its allies for putting obstacles and schemes to either persecute perceived leaders of resistance movements or force them to capitulate while ignoring the root causes of these armed conflicts. Its so-called global “war on terror” has sabotaged the peace negotiations in the Philippines in particular through the terrorist listing. We call on the parties to such armed conflicts to resume their negotiations towards the effective resolution of their social and economic bases.


The protections afforded by civil and political rights must apply equally to the victim and the violator. Any departure from that commitment is self-defeating, leading to greater abuse and the ultimate loss of those rights.

Too often, in the region, democratic rights are made dependent upon accepting free markets, free trade and globalization. Forcing people to accept these against their collective will constitutes a denial of fundamental democratic rights and too often results in their further impoverishment.
Security is not achieved by falsely criminalizing legitimate dissent and by classifying simple criminal acts, no matter how egregious, as acts of war or terror threatening the security of the state. The greater threat is allowing governments to target their political enemies under the guise of combating terrorism.
The preservation of these rights is dependent upon the ability of lawyers to protect them and the will of the judiciary to preserve them. We applaud the victorious struggle of our colleagues in Pakistan to deliver its judiciary from Musharraf’s tyrannical attempt to subject the courts to his will. We express our solidarity with our colleagues in the Philippines and elsewhere who, in the face of imprisonment, assassination and other threats, defend the rule of law and the democratic rights of the people.

The conference stressed the need to end impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations and supports efforts to insure that those governments and individuals responsible are held accountable. As one tool to accomplish this and combat the rampant human rights violations in the Asia Pacific, it is committed to the creation of a regional human rights commission and court.

Unjust detention, torture and denial of due process, as is being suffered by the Morong 43, cannot be tolerated.


The global financial crisis has taken its toll on the region’s people. More and more live in poverty, with 660 million unemployed and 152 million living on less than one US dollar a day. It has forced millions more to leave their homes and suffer increased oppression and exploitation as migrants. There is a concomitant rise children dying before their fifth birthdays with social and economic indicators revealing great suffering. The crisis has been disastrous to the already most vulnerable sectors of society, including migrant workers, women, minority groups, children, and young workers.

Governments have failed to fulfill their obligations to protect people’s welfare despite binding conventions. It is incumbent on all lawyers to know the obligations states have under these instruments and to fight for their fulfillment. Those we serve must know that governments are required to take affirmative steps to promote an adequate standard of living for all, including the rights to jobs at fair pay, housing, education and health care. The human rights framework is a powerful tool in the hands of people who know and understand it.


The conference identified the need for human rights education and training. Lawyers have a responsibility to engage in effective human rights advocacy and community education. They need to enhance their knowledge of international human rights and humanitarian law instruments, their domestic applications and the international mechanisms for enforcement. Lawyers have a duty to educate judges and inform the people.
Law schools must offer a broad curriculum which encourages students to think critically about the historical development of law and lawyers’ moral responsibility for the protection of citizens’ rights. They must therefore include education and training in the substance, purpose and application of human rights and humanitarian law and the duty of lawyers to work to promote social justice and oppose oppression. Lawyers cannot, however, keep this knowledge to themselves. They are obligated to disseminate it among those most affected by the current crisis.


Enforcement mechanisms are needed to ensure human rights and all available must be utilized. These include reporting to United Nations treaty bodies and assisting civil society to participate in the Human Rights’ Council’s Universal Periodic Reviews. The conference calls on the IADL to form a working group to study all the existing international mechanisms to enforce human rights, particularly including claims brought under Universal Jurisdiction. IADL should also specifically work with the NUPL to secure prosecutions of those responsible for human rights violations in the Philippines.


Public corruption impacts all aspects of government and administration of justice and undermines democratic institutions. It is a crime against the people and corrupt public officials must be held accountable, along with those who offer bribes or fail to report corruption. The conference calls for international laws and courts that would address corruption by heads of state and multinational corporations.


A healthy and ecologically balanced environment is essential to the enjoyment of all other human rights. We must therefore ensure that environmental destruction by governments, businesses and multinational companies is not permitted. Climate change threatens the world and has recently devastated Pakistan, must be addressed. Effective international instruments as well as domestic laws must be available to protect the environment. While the environment is an international concern, local participation is critical to ensure its protection while international conventions are being implemented. We must think globally but act locally. Environmental activists and defenders must be defended against unfair prosecutions and law suits aimed at silencing them must be condemned.


The conference committed delegates to the principles of “people’s lawyering.” People’s lawyers derive their mandate from the people’s struggle for justice not from the government, not from the law, and certainly not from any selfish material agenda. Their motivation comes from their desire to end the injustices committed against the people because of an economic and social system that needs to be changed. Commitment to social change is therefore an essential component of people’s lawyering. People’s lawyers involve themselves in causes that fundamentally affect the lives of a sector of society or even the whole of society itself.
The battle is not confined to the courtroom. People’s lawyers employ creative forms of action, mobilizing and utilizing the people’s strength, unity and militancy, bringing the issues to the public and thereby organizing and raising social awareness of their clients and those who will support their cause.
People’s lawyering is based upon an informed understanding of the root causes of social problems and a willingness to dedicate skills and efforts to serving and empowering the people.


The notion that human rights are indivisible is not merely an abstract principle. It is impossible to secure some rights without securing all. Those who do not have enough to eat cannot exercise their political rights in a meaningful way. One cannot enjoy legal equality without the means to litigate one’s case.

As lawyers, we must struggle to transform the profession and society. We choose to serve the people and we are determined to lead others to do the same. We echo the sentiments of our colleague, Judge Romeo Capulong that being a people’s lawyer offers one “a treasured journey of self-fulfillment and rewarding achievement.” No lawyer – and no human being – could ask for more from life.#

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