Czarina Musni

Civil and political rights. Environmental rights. Indigenous Peoples’s Rights.
National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) – Union of Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM)

Musni is originally from the island of Mindanao, where she works as a lawyer and human rights defender. In her country, her work and her activism are labeled as terrorist acts:

“when you defend indigenous peoples, when you defend farmers, when you ask for an end to armed conflict, when you ask for peace talks, when you ask for responsibilities, when you ask for basic rights, you are labeled as a member of an organization that the State has qualified it as a terrorist group through the process of red labeling”. The Czarina has been tagged more than once and knows that her life is in danger.

The lawyer and activist focuses her work on the defense of the most vulnerable people: she accompanies the local indigenous communities in the defense of their lands against the companies that are dedicated to extractive industries. Their defenses are always opposed to the big interests of companies and those of the government.

She is part of the organization National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), and of its affiliated organization in Mindanao Union Peoples’ Lawyers in Mindanao (UPLM), where she is secretary general.

Both organizations provide free legal services to victims of human rights violations. Musni is also part of Karapatan, a national alliance that works for the promotion and protection of the rights of the marginalized and oppressed sectors of Philippine society.

According to the 2020 Human Rights Council report on the Philippines, there are enormous barriers to access to justice in the Philippines, which is why NUPL’s work is essential especially for minorities and marginalized groups.

Because of her work as a defense lawyer and her involvement with the indigenous community, she has received threats, persecution and harassment; and has been caught in the crossfire of the army, the police and hired killers. As a result of this situation, she had to leave the country.

In September 2020, she received 3 months of international protection in the Netherlands, through the Justice and Peace organization, but the return to the Philippines at the end of December was not possible due to the high-risk situation in which there are still human rights defenders in the Philippines, especially lawyers.

Interview with Czarina Musni

A UN Human Rights Council resolution requests the High Commissioner for Human Rights to provide a detailed report on the human rights situation in the Philippines. What should be included in this report?

We welcome the United Nations resolution to investigate the rampant and numerous killings in the Philippines, as well as the incidents of extrajudicial killings of activists, peasant leaders and indigenous peoples and human rights defenders. This would show the world how the regime uses brute force, power and influence to silence its detractors.

It is crucial to put into context the political and economic situation before and during the Duterte administration to understand what is really going on. Regarding the War on Drugs we need to be aware that the victims are street vendors, those who sell packets of drugs in small quantities and who come from the poorest of the poor. Drug lords, suppliers and financiers are never caught. Therefore, it is de facto a war against the poor Filipinos.

The report should also make it clear why activists are there and what they are fighting for. For example, why do peasants and indigenous peoples take to the streets and rally in front of government agencies and private companies? Why are peasants deprived of land by multinational agricultural companies? Why do indigenous peoples only want to exercise their right to self-determination in their ancestral domains and protect them from developmental aggressions such as mining, dams, ecotourism and corporate plantations? Why are workers rallying for a global wage increase and humane working conditions?

Your activism is everywhere.

It’s impossible not to be everywhere given the context. I believe that indigenous peoples should be respected for exercising their right to self-determination, that they not be killed if they say no to a mining project; that the urban poor receive adequate shelter and that young people receive affordable housing and quality education. If we really want to protect the environment, we must defend the people who defend the mountains. No?

They attack you directly, the lawyers.

Yes. And we have the numbers. In a report we made last April 23 to present to the Supreme Court of the Philippines on ‘attacks against lawyers, prosecutors and judges we recorded at least 176 attacks prima facie related to the profession or work against lawyers and judges only between January 2011 and until April 22, 2021. In this period there were at least 73 murders and 104 incidents related to other forms of attack, involving 145 lawyers, prosecutors and judges.

We also note that 91% of reported attacks were against our organization (NUPL). The highest number of attacks was recorded in 2019, with at least 39 incidents.

And you continue with the work despite the risks and threats.

Yes, but because I believe it is worth it, that something good will bring, not only for me, but for the communities I serve, for the Filipino people, for the world. I want to live many years, but if I get killed because of what I do, maybe that’s my fate. I want my work to continue to influence more people to do human rights work or stand by other lawyers when they are at risk.

As lawyers, we face constant threats and allegations for the human rights cases we handle. Because of their demands, our clients are labeled as “terrorists”, as “communists” or as “enemies of the State”. And so are we, their lawyers. But we take these brands as badges of value as we stand with and for the Filipino masses who demand justice and equality”. “We will not be intimidated. We will not fail. We will go out and defend our customers. Even if we have to do it until death.”

How does this total surveillance of you affect the work of judges, prosecutors and lawyers?

Ens fan campanyes de difamació, vigilància, assetjament i, pitjor encara, assassinen els nostres col·legues. We are subjected to smear campaigns, surveillance, harassment and, even worse, murdering our colleagues. As for the judges and prosecutors, they also have the feeling of being ‘watched’ on how they handle our cases, which greatly affects the way they do their work. We recently lost a colleague, Benjamin Ramon, he was 56 years old and the father of three children. His daughter has recently become a lawyer and has vowed to carry on her father’s legacy and stand up for the poor and downtrodden. Knowing that Ben Ramon was killed for doing his job causes us alarm and concern. But his death also illuminates our moral compasses when deciding which battles to fight. And we decide to fight these battles against oppression, repression and injustice.

Your profession is your activism and your life.

Certainly. The oath we took as lawyers is to defend justice, to defend equality. A la Facultat de Dret ens van ensenyar que amb això no guanyarem diners, que no és negoci, que no té ànim de lucre. The law calls us to serve for equality, for justice and all these ideals in a peaceful society. And I think it’s not just ideals, not just principles, but also from a moral and spiritual point of view that we’re trying to call lawyers to join our ranks, to stand up for the profession, stand up for the people, because that’s the essence of our work and life.

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