By most accounts, Benjamin Ramos died doing exactly what he had always done as a human rights lawyer: helping his clients free of charge. On the evening of November 6, Ramos was taking a break from assisting a client when gunmen on a motorcycle shot him three times. Ramos was 56 years old.
Ramos’s murder in the central Philippine province of Negros Occidental is shocking but, sadly, not surprising in a country where impunity for extrajudicial killings and other serious rights violations, including “drug war” murders, prevails.
Lawyers like Ramos who represent the most marginalized people in the Philippines have themselves also been victims of abuse. For his work, authorities vilified Ramos as a communist and harassed his colleagues. According to the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, which he helped establish, Ramos was the 34th lawyer to have been murdered since President Rodrigo Duterte took office.
Ramos’s murder also underscores the persistence of injustice in Negros, where landlessness has bred decades-old agrarian conflict. Ramos was representing families of victims of last month’s Sagay Massacre, when nine activists were gunned down after joining a protest on a sugarcane plantation. These protests, known as “bungkalan,” have often resulted in violence in Negros and elsewhere, as peasants and farmers occupy contested property and are met with resistance from landowners. Three decades since the Philippines’ “People Power” uprising spurred demands for change, agrarian reform remains an unfulfilled promise.
The National Federation of Sugar Workers has reported that 172 farmers, peasants and land rights activists – 45 in Negros alone – have been killed during Duterte’s two years in office. Only about 15 cases have been filed in court and none have resulted in a conviction, according to the Philippine human rights group Karapatan.
Attacks against farmers and peasants – and those who represent them – highlight the deadly consequences of land injustice in the Philippines and the government’s continued failure to address a long-simmering issue.