Speaking Truth to Power in the Philippines
Emeritus Professor of Psychology Doug Davis went on the road in 2014 with pioneering human rights attorney Bob Swift ’68 as he distributed some of the $19 million won in a landmark case brought on behalf of thousands of victims of the Ferdinand Marcos regime’s reign of terror.
I was in the emotional embrace of a Muslim woman I had met minutes earlier, each of us weeping. I had just handed Artemia Delator compensation for the loss of 11 members of her family, who were massacred by the Philippine military in 1985. She had made the long journey to Manila after missing check distributions in Mindanao and she was anxious. She brought with her photographs and news clippings about the summary execution of her entire family—people old and young, murdered and piled nude in a heap. This aging woman had lived most of her life in the shadow of both the horrific event and the strange publicity around it.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
As adventures will in the early 21st century, this one began with an email. It was from my longtime friend Bob Swift, whom I see Sundays at Haverford Quaker Meeting. Bob graduated from Haverford in 1968, several years before I joined the faculty, where I taught psychology for 33 years. In 2005 I took emeritus status, leaving me with a lot of spare time. Bob’s email proposed that I accompany him on a nine-week trip to the Philippines to distribute compensation to human rights victims of the Marcos regime.
I knew only generally of Bob’s career in international human rights. As a senior member of the Philadelphia law firm of Kohn, Swift, & Graf, Bob had successfully litigated a major case against Ferdinand Marcos. He had also led litigation and negotiated settlements of $7.5 billion in Holocaust cases against the nations of Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. These cases were the cutting edge of human rights jurisprudence in the United States, and in the world. As Bob describes it, he leveled the playing field between perpetrator and victim by using class-action procedures.
Intrigued with this offer, I met him in his office and began to hear the full story. Bob described the many stages of the vast 28-year lawsuit known as Hilao v. Estate of Marcos.
The case was brought on behalf of almost 10,000 victims of torture, summary execution, and disappearance against the former president of the Philippines, who fled to the United States following the “Bloodless Revolution” of 1986. Marcos, who accumulated billions of dollars in personal assets during his presidency, died in 1989. His wife and son, however, vigorously defended the suit.
The case was litigated in Hawaii federal court as the first human rights class action in world history. It was the first time a former president of a foreign country was brought to trial in the United States. Jurisdiction was established under a little-known law, the Alien Tort Statute passed by the first Congress in 1789, which gave noncitizens the right to sue in U.S. courts for violations of international human rights. The cause of action was that Marcos directed and orchestrated human rights abuses as commander in chief of the Philippine military, for which he was personally liable under the legal doctrine of command responsibility.
The first named plaintiff, the mother of Liliosa Hilao, claimed that her daughter, a college student and editor of the school newspaper, was murdered during interrogation when muriatic acid was poured down her throat.
The breadth of the case was extraordinary. The only one of comparable size and subject matter was the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials of 1946. Ultimately, the Hawaii jury found in favor of a class of 9,539 and awarded almost $2 billion in damages. The court of appeals upheld the award in a landmark decision. But the Marcos family frustrated collection of the judgment by concealing property, which was often held in dummy corporations incorporated in foreign tax havens. The Philippine government also opposed collection of the judgment, claiming that all Marcos property belonged to it. Philippine courts refused to recognize the U.S. judgment. The U.S. State Department and Switzerland opposed collection efforts as well.
Despite these formidable obstacles, Bob was able to recover $11 million, which he distributed to the victims in 2011. In 2014, an additional $8 million became available for distribution.
Bob explained that the distribution of money to victims was no walk in the park. The money had to be paid via checks drawn on a Philippine bank. (One Philippine bank agreed to open an account for the distribution after five major banks refused to do so.) Checks had to be handed to claimants individually because the Philippine postal system was both inefficient and corrupt. Claimants, mostly impoverished, came from all parts of the country, including regions where armed rebellion still flourished. Bob opened a large map of the Philippines festooned with Post-it Notes showing 15 locations where distribution would take place. He mentioned that security was problematic in many of the locations, especially Muslim Mindanao. Philippine marines and national police had agreed to establish a perimeter in and around the distribution sites to ensure our safety. One location, Zamboanga City, had been taken forcibly by Muslim rebels months earlier and then retaken by the Philippine military.
As I listened to this, I asked the natural question: “Why me?” Bob replied: “I need someone I can trust to watch my back. You have experience in developing countries, and you’re knowledgeable about Muslim culture.” He then explained that he had planned to take his paralegal, a recent Haverford graduate, but, he said, “She’s afraid to go.” He assured me that he had survived 35 trips to the Philippines, and that the distribution was carefully planned with security in mind. He allowed, however, that the U.S. Embassy in Manila had written him urging him not to proceed with the trip. The briefing convinced me this was something I wanted to do (despite anxiety on the part of family and friends). In late January 2014, Bob and I left for nine weeks and 15 venues throughout the Philippines.
We started with locations in Cotabato, Mindanao, where there was indeed evidence of security concern: Marines in plain clothes with handguns in their waistbands in the Human Rights van, and eight men in camouflage with M-16s escorting us into the auditorium where the distribution occurred. Our arrival in southeastern Mindanao coincided with an armed confrontation between the military and Muslim rebels 20 miles away, which resulted in 50 deaths.
The “triage system” designed by Bob and staffed by local human rights workers, teachers, and attorneys worked beautifully. As many as 24 staffers assisted in reviewing documents and speaking to claimants in the local language or dialect. Each claimant was vetted by photo IDs. Where a claimant had passed away, a successor presented birth, baptismal, marriage, and death certificates to establish the right to compensation. Claimants often traveled 10 or 12 hours to get to a location. Sometimes they slept outside the distribution centers. It was not unusual to arrive at 8 a.m. and see more than 200 people waiting in line.
Our workdays averaged 10 hours. We sweated a lot. There was immense satisfaction in seeing the people in their local dress and observing the expressions on their faces. At the end of most days, we had certified claimants and given checks to hundreds of victims, who were then directed to branch banks where they could cash their checks. The checks—some victims received multiple claims—were for 50,000 Philippine pesos (US $1,200), often more money than they had ever seen at one time. Bob insisted on shaking hands with each claimant, evoking both surprise and joy. Through an interpreter, he asked what they would do with the money. Some planned to buy a carabao (water buffalo). Others planned to obtain medicine, pay debts, rebuild a home shattered by Typhoon Haiyan (November 2013), or send kids to school.
The victims were a cross-section of Philippine society: peasants whose land happened to be sheltering minerals and forests wanted by the regime; radicals—some of them armed—who had left jobs and education to form a militant opposition to the regime; priests and nuns who put themselves at risk, acting on behalf of their parishioners; public servants repelled by what state agencies had become under Marcos. We saw them all. (Some of the claimants were known to our human rights staff as cellmates in the ’70s and ’80s, and we heard details of their suffering over lunch.)
If the claimant was old or infirm—as many were—there was another family member assisting. At several points, when I reacted with strong emotion to a broken body or a family’s story of the attack that took their loved ones, Bob suggested that I would grow to be more “clinical” as time went on. I guess I did, in the sense that I knew I had to maintain composure and do the clerical work of discovering whether this person’s family was indeed listed under “Torture” or “Salvage” (the regime’s term for summary execution), or in the “Disappearance” database.
Afterward, each claimant was photographed holding his or her check. The reason was utilitarian: to establish receipt of compensation. But the gifted photographer who accompanied us, Tony Oquias, took thousands of additional photos showcasing the faces of claimants who traveled so far and waited so long to receive compensation.
Among those he photographed was 101-year-old Kenis Bensik, whose son was a victim of summary execution in 1978. Tony captured his striking face: angular, wizened, deeply lined, with a white goatee. He was holding a walking stick decorated in many colors with baubles or bells. I don’t think he will be attending another distribution.
Tony also photographed Hilario? Batao, who was shot and tortured in 1978, and whose lower face appeared as if it had been somehow torn off and then crudely reattached. While many others had been bludgeoned with the butts of rifles, Bob thought she had been shot in the face. After taking the customary photo of claimant with check, Tony got her in profile with the deep blue of the wall beyond her and a soft afternoon light coming in through the high window. When Bob and I reviewed Tony’s photographs, Bob remarked that this one had a “Vermeer” quality. The woman’s portrait does not mask her deformity but reflects her suffering, perseverance, and dignity.
For nine weeks in 2014, I was witness to the endgame in one of the most important lawsuits of the 20th century. Now, a year later, I’m reflecting on the implications of litigation involving, on the one hand, the Supreme Courts of the U.S. and the Philippines, as well as the many venues in which Marcos money has been hidden around the world; and, on the other hand, a meticulously administered system by which the claims of thousands of victims and their descendants are verified and compensation is placed in their hands.
As the litigation of Hilao v. Estate of Marcos is a model of class-action law, so the triage system by which victims’ claims are verified and payment issued is a model of social justice under adverse circumstances. I’ve spent years in countries where average citizens seek justice from courts and public officials and are told, at the end of the day, to return tomorrow with more documents—and more bribe money. In this case, the architect of the billion-dollar lawsuit is present to hand over the check and to hear the details of each claimant’s encounter with martial law.
And at this point I ask myself what Haverford College had to do with the extraordinary career of my attorney friend, and what the takeaway from the study of this case might be for 21st-century Fords. I like to imagine that sometime in her first three semesters at Haverford a student talented in science and fascinated by literature takes a course taught by a social science professor (cross-listed with Peace, Justice, and Human Rights) and is both fascinated and haunted by a 30-year lawsuit in the Philippines involving 10,000 victims of martial law. For the first time, she begins to wonder about law as a career. Or perhaps it’s a psychology major who spends a Center for Peace and Global Citizenship-funded summer collaborating on a Philippine student’s documentary project on martial law, then returns to his senior thesis on post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of human rights abuse. And I imagine lives—shaped by these experiences at Haverford College—that do, indeed, speak.
Emeritus Professor of Psychology Doug Davis, who holds a Ph.D. in personality psychology from the University of Michigan, joined the Haverford faculty in 1972 and retired in 2006. He continues to live on campus, spends summers at a lake in Minnesota, and visits Morocco each spring. He is a member of Haverford Monthly Meeting.