Featured Student Scholar: Josel Mostajo
Josel Mostajo is currently working for the Office of the President of the Philippines seconded to the Office of the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs as a legal liaison. In the DFA he is involved in international law and human rights issues. He was part of the team which drafted and represented the country for the Universal Periodic Review of the Philippines in the Human Rights Council in 2011 and he was a delegate of the Philippines to the 10th Assembly of State Parties of the International Criminal Court in December 2011 in New York. As a legal adviser to then Senator now President Benigno S. Aquino in the Senate of the Philippines, he advised the Senator on international law and human rights. He was active in various technical working groups on human rights bills like the International Humanitarian Law Bill which was enacted into law. He served as legal consultant to the Presidential Adviser on Peace Process particularly on the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law between the Government of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines from 2005-2006. He interned at the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in 2007.
How did you first become interested in human rights law?
In the summer of 2001, I joined the Center for Legal Aid Work (CLAW) the Community Extension Service of the University of San Carlos College of Law in Cebu, Philippines. With CLAW’s internship program, law students learn to appreciate and understand the reasons for marginalization - the plight of the underprivileged and the vulnerable - so that they can not only bring the law to the grassroots level, but more importantly, learn on the ground so that as human rights advocates, they can bring their advocacy to higher levels such as lobbying, human rights education and in some cases strategic litigation. It was not easy facing heavy issues like grave injustice and poverty and human rights violations as we juggled our work and study. The experience enabled me to see the human faces behind the law. CLAW and the Ateneo Human Rights Center introduced to me the concept of alternative lawyering, a kind of public interest lawyering. To be an alternative lawyer means to view the law as an indispensable weave in our social fabric. It was articulated by Former Chief Justice of the Philippines Hilario Davide when he said that “It is to practice law fundamentally for individuals, communities and sectors that have been historically, culturally and economically marginalized and disenfranchised. The mark of such practice is that it seeks not only to create ripples of public impact from individual cases but also that it empowers in the process. To be an alternative lawyer means a clear professional commitment that the use of law is not the sole domain of those who have passed the bar and taken the oath, but could and should be shared with the individuals, communities and sectors which it affects. Alternative lawyers therefore do not practice alone. At the very least, their clients, beneficiaries or partners participate in the process.
From what or whom have you drawn inspiration in your work as a human rights lawyer?
I was lucky to have good and dedicated human rights advocates and lawyers who mentored me in my search for a more meaningful practice in the law. Carlos P. Medina, the Director of the Ateneo Human Rights Center, introduced me to human rights law and inspired me with his clear vision of good lawyers doing good service for the poor. The Dean of the Ateneo School of Law in Manila, Sedfrey Candelaria showed me the value of hard work and study. My three law deans supported my human rights activities and encourage me to do more - Justice Gabriel Ingles, Deans Corazon Valencia and Alex Monteclar. I have also been inspired by the people who we have had the privilege of serving and who trust our advice and knowledge, despite our young age, when we have stayed in their community. I am inspired by many friends and colleagues who continue to dedicate themselves in the service of the poor Filipinos, who despite offers for greener pastures continue to work as alternative lawyers sometimes at great personal cost. Lastly, I am inspired by the thought that lawyers should not only have the passion for the law, but more importantly, they should have the passion for justice and for doing what is right.
What issues do you feel most determined to address as a human rights lawyer?
As a human rights lawyer, I would like to see that access to justice in my country be easier for most of those who are excluded by it. There are current reform programs being done by the government and we are getting there slowly. As a lawyer, I think people should be more participative, they should demand their rights and that they should be vigilant. Working in government as a human rights advocate has its advantages because you can influence policy making at your level and with my human rights background, I was consulted on issues and I was able to contribute to some changes in policy, which I could not do if I were not in government service. I believe that human rights champions are needed in government in order to contribute to the betterment of policies and ensure that those policies are not only on paper as the country moves toward a more inclusive and meaningful growth.
What obstacles do you perceive as the most challenging in your work?
I am fortunate that the current government I am privileged to be in the service of has a very strong human rights foundation. The current President of the Philippines, Benigno S. Aquino III, is a staunch human rights advocate, himself being a victim of human rights violations during the Marcos regime when his father was killed and his family sacrificed a lot for the country’s journey back to democracy. His platform of government is for the Filipinos to enjoy the fruits of development and that he is leading the country towards inclusive growth and that human rights and justice should be available to all.
The challenges for most human rights champions in government are red tape and politics. However, as a bureaucrat, I know there are ways to overcome such problems just by knowing how to approach them, and knowing the right people you can talk to with the same goal and mindset. There are many government officials and employees who are there to serve and better government service to the people with zeal and fervor. There are so many dedicated people who are willing to pursue the cause of human rights in government like diplomats, prosecutors and other human rights advocate. With so many champions and with the right mindset - that the government is there to serve its people - I think my being a human rights advocate is an advantage in facing the problems of politics and red tape so that I will not be lost in the maze of political compromise.
Why did you decide to study human rights at Notre Dame? How has the experience been?
The University of Notre Dame’s LLM in International Human Rights Law Program is one of the best in the United States because of the teachers and the focus of the Center for Civil and Human Rights on bringing together human rights lawyers and advocates to share their experiences, so that each of us can learn from each other. Aside from the lessons and legal expertise that we gain from this program, the best take away would be the stories that we tell each other in class and in other informal settings about our experience of human rights lawyering, which is challenging yet rewarding for many of us.
How will an LL.M. education from Notre Dame allow you to be a more effective human rights lawyer?
An LLM education from a law school which intends to form “a different kind of lawyer” is really an advantage for me because I am not only learning the law, but more importantly, the values that Notre Dame stands for, such as strong faith, justice, love of learning and temperance. Human rights lawyers in most of the countries where we are from are already “different kind of lawyers” but with our LLM from Notre Dame, we are more confident that we can bring about change in our own little way and I hope that we would not only be different in a good way, but also great and someone that Notre Dame can be proud of someday.
After the program, we will be bringing with us the lessons from our professors and mentors and aside from this, also in our luggage are memories of friendships and we know that whatever difficulty we are going to face in our work, that no matter how insurmountable the challenges that we are going to overcome in our careers, we know that we can call someone in the other part of the world who is going to listen and understand us in our struggle and that someone is going to give us hope and encourage us to keep the fight and keep the faith in humanity.