Visiting a cramped prison in a small town in the southern Philippines clarified a former Marist seminarian’s vocation: not priesthood, but social justice advocacy.

Daniel Kleinsman said he had already done a law degree before he entered the seminary.

“I went to seminary not knowing this was what I was called to, but feeling that … [this] is a possible way in which I was called to serve: the cause of social justice,” he said.

He described his first jail visit as “quite a shock”. The Marist seminarians visited the Ma’a City Jail in Davao as part of their pastoral experience.

“It was confronting. It was a pretty awful environment. It was inhumane. The smell was awful. People were sleeping on top of each other on the concrete. They were living in close proximity without access to soap and water. All of that was quite confronting and upsetting,” he said.

Then, he said, they made “an amazing connection” with the inmates.

“These people were generous, gracious and hospitable and I suppose, faith-filled in terms of their hope and faith in their future and in justice. It was quite moving,” he said.

“The majority of the people were just waiting for a hearing . . . some for ten years. A lot of them had a series of what sounded like a pretty questionable arrest[s], absence of warrant or anything. Hearing all of that was quite overwhelming,” he added.

Mr Kleinsman’s first visit occurred towards the end of 2015. He stayed there for nine months and fell “in love with the Filipino culture”.

He went back to New Zealand and studied international human rights law. He received a post-graduate research grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation and returned to the Philippines last year for the research.

He was dismayed to find out that the number of inmates in the prison he had visited rose from more than 2000 in 2016 to more than 3000 in 2017.

The prisons capacity was only for 600 inmates.

“The effect of this further increase in overcrowding is palpable,” he said. “The suffering gaze of those without the energy to stand up or even sit up, is penetrating.”

Mr Kleinsman’s research was about human rights compliance and looking
at the Philippines as a case study “Not because that’s necessarily the extreme case of prisoner mistreatment”, he clarified.

He said the problem is complicated on several levels.

“What I saw cannot be condoned by international law but then I saw that the Philippines was a signatory to most of these treaties,” he said. He said there is a lot of research that shows that once a country signs an international human rights treaty, human rights practice in that particular country deteriorates. This is because the signing itself “creates the impression of compliance”.

“The emphasis is on expressive commitment rather than the carrying out of the obligations themselves,” Mr Kleinsman said.

He said there is also the issue of how much and what kind of external measures should be put in place in a country without these measures becoming “colonial and disempowering” to the local people who are working tirelessly for human rights.

“Some of these problems are caused by a lack of resources, often political instability and corruption and you certainly can’t just go in there and wave your magic wand,” he said.

In his thesis, Mr Kleinsman proposed “a restorative justice approach to the external regulation”.

“External regulation (measures set by international bodies on a country) need to be both less tolerant of violations but also more understanding of the local situation,” he said.

He said it should recognise “the need for local actors to solve those problems themselves but where they need external support and resources for that to be provided in an empowering and relational way”.

Mr Kleinsman said the next stage for him is working for a firm in Wellington which is looking at Treaty of Waitangi claims. “Hopefully, [I would be] also engaging with the kaupapa enquiries which are now looking at the deeper and more systemic consequences of violations of the treaty”.

He is also looking at how he could further help the “individuals I met whose stories I know and who I know are sitting there and waiting for their first hearing [in the Philippines]”.

“My journey with the Marists has enriched [and] further informed my own sense of what my calling is. I’m very grateful for that,” he said.

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