Benjie Aquino

For Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Young Defender Benjie Aquino, improving human rights in the Philippines meant providing activists with paralegal training. What he viewed as “legal empowerment”, this training aimed to provide the necessary tools and protections for his fellow activists to continue work without retribution from the government.

During the pandemic, the Philippine government failed to provide proper aid and communities began to look upon themselves to support their communities. Women began offering food in community pantries for neighbors in need, later to be called the ‘Community Pantry Movement’. However, instead of attempts by the government to these women, they instead led a backlash against the organizers. The government claimed that the aid efforts were a part of a rebellion against the government. Benjie says this ‘red-tagging’ – improperly associating people with anti-government activists simply for engaging in activities they don’t like or find offensive – is commonplace.

Benjie knew this story all too well. He shared that, “as the government deployed police against these women providing aid, [he and his peers] set up a team that would specifically defend these community pantries.” Setting up helpdesks staffed by law students during the pandemic, students launched in the action, nationwide in scope, to ensure that humanitarian aid reached the underserved.

“These people providing aid didn’t see themselves as activists, but they were being targeted by the government as such, simply for helping during the pandemic where the government fell short,” he said. “We saw it as our duty to protect them.”

While not the glorious or flashy side of activism, this sort-of paralegal activism served those on the frontlines human rights activities in the country, especially young students on college campuses. In the Philippines, campuses have certain legal protections that prevent the presence of the military or police. But often, the government will use excuses such as national security to circumvent the law and target protestors.

“Young activists often assume they have a broad set of rights that they may not necessarily have,” Benjie said. “Activities like taking videos of police officers are the types of things we warn students from doing to prevent students from facing charges.” Commenting on the state of legal protections for young activists, he said that “many believe that they have full body armor when, in fact, they only have a helmet.”

Benjie looks forward to continuing his mission for protecting civil liberties after finishing law school to protect youth like him from being unfairly targeted by the government. When discussing his role models that inspire his activism, he specifically mentioned Jose Diokno, who was a Filipino human rights lawyer and considered “the Father of Human Rights” during an authoritarian period in Philipinne history known as “the dark era.” Specifically, Benjie mentioned an inspiring quote of his that keeps him going:

“No cause is more worthy than the cause of human rights. They are what makes a man human. Deny them and you deny man’s humanity.”

Benjie’s work in training young activists represents his unique, but vital perspective in human rights activism: providing the tools and protection necessary for activists as a means to enable future human rights work. He demonstrates that activism doesn’t necessarily have to take place on the frontlines and it’s why he was selected as a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Young Defender.