Last Thursday marked the launch of the new Friends in Fellowship speaker series run by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting at Arch Street Meetinghouse.
After people assembled in the reception room for a light supper, the human rights lawyer, Robert Swift, briefed them on human rights restitution in the Philippines. Before heading home one visitor said, “this was a great event and I’m definitely coming to the rest of them.” One member at West Chester Meeting is even planning to make it a regular girls’ night out.
People came for different reasons. They lived near-by, they were interested in the topic, they had a late afternoon meeting in the city, or they were looking for a fun way to end the day. Friends shared life stories, monthly meeting news, professional updates, and passions or concerns.
Bob Swift told the group he was first drawn to human rights work as way to support victims who would otherwise have had no recourse. Invoking a never-used law dating to 1789—the Alien Torte Statute—which gave ‘aliens’ the right to sue in US courts, Bob assembled a class action suit on behalf of some 10,000 victims of the Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos’ tenure, from 1965 to 1986 was known for corruption, brutality and kleptocratic practices.
Bob proved human rights violations via ‘a pattern and practice’ of abuse by the military officers Marcos controlled, and persuaded the jury to award the victims ‘exemplary damages’ of $1.2 billion in 1989 (about $100,000 per person). It was the first successful lawsuit ever won against a foreign head of state in the US courts. Even more meaningful than the win, though, was the face-to-face work Bob then took on, going from village to village, delivering life-saving settlement monies to families still living on the sharp edge of poverty.
Bob believes that people are entitled to compensation for human rights abuses. “What I have found,” he said … “through the Marcos case and others, is that people subjected to human rights abuses have families left to live in poverty. In the Philippines, the death of a breadwinner usually forces a family into destitution for the next two generations. That’s a long time, because in third world countries it costs money to send your children to school beyond the first few years: school children need shoes, pencils and paper, as well as other supplies, to participate in class. Where there is real, grinding poverty, kids can’t afford educational materials so they don’t stay in school.”
Next on Bob’s list is a new case in South Korea, where he is working with President Moon Jae-in to secure damages from 69 Japanese corporations who used forced Korean labor in World War II. “You may not hear much about this issue here,” Bob says, “but there has been a film about it, Battleship Island, and tens of thousands of living people were impacted.” At President Moon’s request, Bob just did a forum on the topic. They booked an auditorium for 600 attendees, but 2000 showed up. The case will re-write history, and will force the Japanese to confront the human cost of their WW II military-industrial complex.
It was a great evening for F(f)riends. As one Friend, Lynn Oberfield, of Providence Meeting put it; “…there are quiet people doing all kinds of good work around the world that we may not have known about, and they’ve brought their Quaker values to it…”