Choosing the right path

Karapatan secretary general Cristina “Tinay” Palabay (artwork by Dee Ayroso)

“You have to connect yourself with the people, and the people’s movements. You can’t just fight for the people, you have to fight with them as well.”


MANILA — On International Human Rights Day, Cristina Palabay, secretary general of human rights alliance Karapatan, received a call from an unidentified caller.

“He was asking where I live and said all the worst possible things that he/they will do to me,” Tinay, as most her colleagues call her, said. The same person, who used the number 09275704471, sent her text messages calling her names such as “garbage,” “prostitute dreamer,” among others.

Last year, Tinay also received a phone call from a man who accused her of being involved in the alleged ambush of June 19, 2017 of the Presidential Security Group by members of the New People’s Army (NPA) in Mindanao. The caller also repeatedly asked about Palabay’s whereabouts, and warned her to be careful because he would soon meet her.

After searching the caller’s cellphone number (+639260779448 ), it appeared that the number belongs to a member of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Safety Battalion.

Such threats no longer surprise the 40-year-old rights advocate. President Rodrigo Duterte himself publicly expressed disdain for those who stand up for human rights, even encouraging state agents to go after Karapatan members.

Tinay and seven other human rights defenders were also charged with perjury by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. The case was eventually dismissed, except for Catholic nun Elenita Belardo. Tinay maintained the case “is a “reprisal for daring to perform human rights work.”

This year, Tinay was a recipient of the 2019 Courage Award by the Women Have Wings Foundation, an international group that since 2012 has been “honoring women of courage who have taken bold risks to ensure a more just and peaceful future.”

“A committed human rights activist, Palabay has consistently stood in raising alarm over the numerous abuses and violations committed by a government which she described as one that ‘evades accountability,’” the foundation said.

For Tinay, the essence of human rights is to see to its eventual irrelevance.

“There is no need for a ‘human rights movement’ if there are no human rights violations, and that necessitates a tight connection with the people’s movement. Human rights and people’s rights need the context of the social and people’s movements.”

Tinay didn’t have the “stereotypical” introduction to activism. She joined the Center for Nationalist Studies while a student at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Before this, she found herself in the 1995 State of the Nation Address (SONA) protests. “I wanted to understand for myself what I saw. But I didn’t join a mass organization or anything.”

From the CNS, Tinay became a member and eventually became the president of the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP). Her group, along with other national organizations, mobilized thousands of students that eventually led to the ouster of then President Joseph Estrada.

After her involvement with the youth movement, Tinay joined Gabriela and became its secretary general.

It was in 2010 when case proceedings against Imelda Marcos and the clamor for her to serve a prison term that made Tinay decide to focus on human rights work as a member of Karapatan.

Cristina Palabay during the commemoration of International Human Rights Day 2019. (Photo by Carlo Manalansan/Bulatlat)

Experiences and hardships

Since then, Tinay has been involved defending human rights. In 2010, she recalls the case of the Morong 43 as teaching her a lot about political prisoners. “More than their will, it’s the strength of their families, and the national impact of their assertion that allowed them to go on. The people really are the ones who will decide.”

The 43 health workers were arrested in Morning, Rizal while conducting a training. They were slapped with tumped-up charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Due to local and international pressure, the then Aquino administration released the Morong 43.

Tinay admitted there were times that it’s not so easy. “Sometimes you have to face families of victims, or the victims themselves, and you can’t show grief. They’re in pain and all you want to do is to share in that pain, but you have to stand strong even if it’s piercing you in the heart,” Tinay said.

Experiences like these have taught Tinay the harsh reality of human rights work. “There is a climate of impunity,” she said. “The government has a distorted view of human rights which is anathema to any democracy. They see it as a nuisance because it seeks to silence those who wish to break the status quo.”

Asked how she copes with the stress, Tinay said she reads books and watches Netflix. “Right now it’s Money Heist. They’re anarchists, but I love it.”


She described the current situation of human rights work as one where “avenues are constantly closing”. Duterte’s current counter-insurgency program, Oplan Kapanatagan, and the whole-of-nation approach, has made things worse.

Tinay sees the main challenge of human rights work as stemming from the state’s current orientation. “If we are going to see change,” she said, “it’s not enough for us to be vigilant in human rights work. We have to address the roots of oppression. End the current feudal economy and subservience to foreign interests. We need a comprehensive change, led by a government whose heart is in people’s rights.”

People-centric approach

The key to human rights work, Tinay said, is in taking root in the people. “It’s not enough to go by the law,” she said. “The law doesn’t work. It’s not about the mechanisms that work, it’s about the ones that don’t work.”

She emphasized the need to go beyond courts in seeking justice for human rights violations and taking on a people-centric approach. The most important thing, she said, is to organize. “You have to connect yourself with the people, and the people’s movements. You can’t just fight for the people, you have to fight with them as well.”

Most importantly, human rights defenders need to be “calm, but defiant” in the face of impunity. “We’re frequently on the front lines, so we have to be prepared for the worst,” she said. The possibility of death is something human rights defenders have to face constantly, but it shouldn’t be a source of fear.

“A lesson they never learn is that you never solve anything by killing people. People can die, but ideas live on,” she said.

“I don’t really get doubts if I chose the right path,” she said. “I’m 40 now, I don’t think I’ll be having a midlife crisis soon.” (

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