Philippines: The Old Struggle for Human Rights, New Problems Posed by Security

Apr. 26, 2007

By Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno
Supreme Court

(Delivered on April 18, 2007 on the occasion of the conferment of the
honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of the East.)

Tomorrow begins in the East, trumpets the motto of this venerable
institution of learning. In his last moments in Bagumbayan, our national
hero Jose Rizal stared at tomorrow in the eye, veered his bullet-riddled
body to the right and fell lifeless on the ground face turned towards
the rising sun in the east. From the cradle to the grave, Rizal
consecrated his life to fight for the human rights of our people.

Today, you will be certified as a walking intellectual. Tomorrow, you
will be looking at our people with a fresh eye. I urge you to use your
new eye to perceive the meaning and nuances of our continuing struggle
to protect and push to new thresholds the human rights of our people.

The wisdom of hindsight informs us that human rights stem from three
bedrock rights: the right to life, the right to human dignity, and the
right to develop. From the right to life springs our right to own
property, to health, to work, to establish a family. From the right to
human dignity flows our right to equal treatment before the law, to
freedom of thought, of conscience, of religion, of opinion, expression,
and to be recognized as a person everywhere. From the right to develop
comes the right to education, and to live in an environment that allows
all of our rights to flourish in full.

There is no human without any right. The caveman and the civilized man
have the same natural rights. Human rights inhere in all of us as human
beings, as beings higher and different from other creatures. Since they
are innate to man, since they are inherent to his being, these rights
are inalienable and cannot be taken away; they are inviolable and cannot
be waylaid by any might of man; their preservation is an obligation
shared by the rulers and the ruled alike.

Our history tells us that in this small patch of the earth, our
forefathers pioneered in planting the seeds of human rights when it was
far from being the fad and fashion of the day. On May 31, 1897, they
established a republican government in Biak-na-Bato. It had a
Constitution advance on political and civil rights. With serendipity,
its authors Felix Ferrer and Isabelo Artacho embedded in it four
articles which guaranteed freedom of the press, the right of
association, freedom of religion, and freedom from deprivation of
property or domicile except by virtue of judgment passed by a competent
court of authority. They entrenched these radical ideals in 1898 when
Aguinaldo established a revolutionary government and adopted the Malolos

Then came our war against the United States. American President McKinley
sent the First Philippine Commission headed by Jacob Gould Schurman to
assess the Philippine situation. On February 2, 1900, the commission
reported to the President that the Filipino wanted above all a
guarantee of those fundamental human rights which Americans hold to be
the natural and inalienable birthright of the individual but which under
Spanish domination in the Philippines had been shamefully invaded and
ruthlessly trampled upon. (emphasis supplied) In response to this,
President McKinley, in his Instruction of April 7, 1990 to the Second
Philippine Commission, provided an authorization and guide for the
establishment of a civil government in the Philippines stated that
(u)pon every division and branch of the government of the Philippines.
. . must be imposed these inviolable rules The inviolable rules
included, among others, that no person shall be deprived of life,
liberty, or property without due process of law.

The inviolable rules of the Instruction were re-enacted almost exactly
in the Philippine Bill of 1902, in the Philippine Autonomy Act of 1916
or the Jones Law, and in the 1935 Constitution.

The 1935 Bill of Rights was carried into the 1973 Constitution with a
few changes, and finally in the 1987 Constitution. As an aftermath of
the martial law regime of the Marcos government, the 1987 Constitution,
enshrined a Bill of Rights which more jealously safeguards the peoples
fundamental liberties. In clear and unmistakable language, the
Constitutional proclaimed as a state policy that (t)he state values the
dignity of very human person and guarantees full respect for human
rights. In addition, it has a separate Article on Social Justice and
Human Rights, under which, the Commission on Human Rights was created.

The horrors of the World Wars warn us that the protection of human
rights is a duty we owe to generations to come. In 1945, the peoples of
the United Nations (UN), declared in the Preamble of the UN Charter that
their primary end was the reaffirmation of faith in the fundamental
human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal
rights of men and women and of nations large and small, in order to
save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.

The promotion of human rights is also the indispensable predicate of
peace and progress. For this reason, on December 10, 1948, the United
Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its two
implementing covenants are the International Covenant on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights. These instruments not only denounced nazism and
fascism, but also recognized that the security of individual rights,
like the security of national rights, was a necessary requisite to a
peaceful and stable world order.

The interesting question is what has happened to human rights in this
new millennium? The end of the Cold War ended the bipolar world starring
the West led by the United States and the East led by Russia. The end
result of that clash of civilization is the emergence of a unipolar
world dominated by democracy as the political ideology and the triumph
of capitalism as the bible of economics. With communism out in the cold,
the world awaited with bated breath the dawn of universal peace and
order. But when peace appeared to be within mankinds grasp, 9/11
shattered to smithereens its illusion. 9/11 gave birth to new realities
on ground with grave repercussions on the human rights situation in the
world, especially the most vulnerable sector, the poor who are many, the
many yet the most impotent.

On the universal level, 9/11 altered the face of international law. As
the worst victim of terrorism, the United States led the fight to excise
and exorcise terrorism from the face of the earth. It pursued a strategy
characterized by a bruising aggressiveness that raised the eyebrows of
legal observers. The leader country of democracy did not wait for the
United Nations to act but immediately sought to search and destroy
terrorists withersoever they may be found. In less polite parlance, the
search and destroy strategy gave little respect to the sovereignty of
states and violated their traditional borders. The strategy which is
keyed on military stealth and might had trampling effects on the basic
liberties of suspected terrorists for laws are silent when the guns of
war do the talking. The war on terrorism has inevitable spilled over
effects on human rights all over the world, especially in countries
suspected as being used as havens of terrorists. One visible result of
the scramble to end terrorism is to take legal shortcuts and legal
shortcuts always shrink the scope of human rights. These shortcuts have
scarred the landscape of rights in the Philippines. In March 2006,
Amnesty International issued a public statement expressing grave concern
over reports of an ongoing pattern of political killings of members of
legal leftist organizations in various provinces in the country. It also
stated that in the wider context of continuing nationwide
counter-insurgency operations against the New Peoples Army (denounced
as terrorists) periodic human rights violation, including arbitrary
detentions, extrajudicial executions and torture, continue to be
reported. Aside from them, community activists, church workers, lawyers,
journalists and others perceived as sympathetic to the communist
movement suffered violation of their human rights. Not to be outdone,
the NPAs are also reported to have lawlessly retaliated against their

The escalation of extra judicial killings in the Philippines has
attracted the harsh eye of advocates of human rights. The UN Commission
on Rights has sent Prof. Alston to look at the Philippine human rights
situation. Some members of the International Parliamentary Union are in
town for the same purpose. Their initial findings are not complementing
to our Constitutional commitment to protect human rights. As young
graduates, you may be asking yourself the relevance of these ongoing
violations of human rights to your life, especially as you embark on
your journey to improve the economic aspects of your life. I submit that
the fight against terrorism and the battle to preserve human rights have
high impact on the right of young people to live with dignity. One of
its ill-effects is the massive displacement of young people in areas
where the fight against terrorism tramples on human rights. These young
people are compelled to migrate to seek greener pastures in hostile
environments and, worse where they find their human rights subjected to
new abuses with near impunity. Figures show that this problem of
displacement will get worse in the coming years because of the galloping
growth of the youth population. The United Nations predict that some 138
countries will have growing youth bulge; its calamitous consequence is
that youth unemployment will skyrocket to record levels with the highest
rate in the Middle East and North Africa. The UN findings further reveal
that at least 60 million people aged 15-20 will not be able to find work
and twice as many, about 130M, cannot lift their families out of
poverty. It will not take a prophet to predict that countries that
cannot give decent life to their young people will serve as incubators
of extremism that may end up in terrorism.

And this leads me to the proposition that we need to give a broader,
innovative view on our efforts to protect the human rights of our people
which should consider our distinct social, economic and political
context. Defying the cult of comformity and comfort, I submit that this
view should consider the following facts and factors:

One. Terrorism is just one means of violating our human rights,
especially our right to life itself, and should not consume our entire
attention. Often, terrorism attracts universal attention because of its
cinematic impact the shocking violence, the bravado of the villains,
the heroism of the victims rescuers, the sickening loss of lives and
property and the dominance of the animal in man. Terrorism is terrible
enough but the mindless, knee jerk reaction to extirpate the evil is
more discomforting. The quickie solution is to unfurl the flag, sing the
national anthem and issue the high pitched call to arms for the military
and the police to use their weapons of destruction under the theme
victory at all cost. To put constitutional cosmetics to the
military-police muscular efforts, lawmakers usually enact laws using
security of the state to justify the dimunition of human rights by
allowing arrests without warrants; surveillance of suspects;
interception and recording of communications; seizure or freezing of
bank deposits, assets and records of suspects. They also redefine
terrorism as a crime against humanity and the redefinition is broadly
drawn to constrict and shrink further the zone of individual rights. If
there is any lesson that we can derive from the history of human rights,
it is none other than these rights cannot be obliterated by bombs but
neither can they be preserved by bullets alone. Terrorism is a
military-police problem but its ultimate solution lies beyond the guns
of our armed forces.

Two. In fighting terrorism, let us not overlook the non-military aspects
of our national security and their impact on human rights. The scholar
Michael Renver hits the bulleye with the following analysis:

xxx terrorism is only symptomatic of a far broader set of deep concerns
that have produced a new age of anxiety. Acts of terror and the
dangerous reactions to them are like exclamation marks in a toxic brew
of profound socioeconomic, environmental, and political pressures forces
that together create a tumultuous and less stable world. Among them are
endemic poverty, convulsive economic transitions that cause growing
inequality and high unemployment, international crime, the spread of
deadly armaments, large-scale population movements, recurring natural
disasters, ecosystem breakdown, new and resurgent communicable diseases,
and rising competition over land and other natural resources,
particularly oil. These problems without passports are likely to
worsen in the years ahead. xxx They cannot be resolved by raising
military expenditures or dispatching troops. Nor can they be contained
by sealing borders or maintaining the status quo in a highly unequal world.

Today and yesterdays broadsheets bannered the news about the
stranglehold of poverty in the Philippines. The World Bank says that
about 15M or 19% of Filipinos survive on less than $1 a day. Our
National Anti Poverty Commission disputes the figures and claim that
only 10.5 M Filipinos live on $1 a day. To the unsophisticated in the
esoterics of economics, this is a distinction without difference for the
cruel fact is that poverty stalks this land of plenty and hunger is
still the best food seasoning of its people. In poor countries, it is
poverty that truly terrorizes people for they are terrorized by the
thought that they will die because of empty stomachs and not that they
will lose their lives due to some invisible suicide bombers. In poor
countries, it is also poverty that renders the poor vulnerable to
violation of their rights, for the poor will not vindicate their rights
in a justice system that moves in slow motion and whose wheels have to
be greased with money. And would any dare to doubt, that our national
security and our human rights are more threatened by the fear that we
face an environmental collapse if we do not take immediate steps to save
our seas and our forests from the despoliation to satisfy the economic
greed of the few. Again, the realities may be uncomfortable but let the
statistics talk and they tell us that in year 2000 for example, 300,000
people all over the world died due to violence in armed conflicts but as
many people die each and every month because of contaminated water or
lack of adequate sanitation.

Three. The threats to our national security and human rights will be
aggravated if we have a state, weakened internally by a government
hobbled by corruption, struggling with credibility, battling the endless
insurgence of the left and the right; and, by a state weakened
externally by pressure exerted by creditor countries, by countries where
our trade comes from, by countries that supply our military and police
armaments. A weak state cannot fully protect the rights of its citizens
within its borders just as a state without economic independence cannot
protect the rights of its citizens who are abroad from the exploitation
of more powerful countries.

Fourth and lastly, the business of safeguarding our national security,
the obligation of protecting human rights is a burden shared by all of
us. It is not only the military that should tackle our problem of
security for it is our security that is at stake, not their security.
Security interest is a collective interest where everybody has a
significant stake. In the same vein, the rich and the powerful should
not consider the protection of the rights of the poor and the powerless
as peripheral problems just because for the moment their own rights are
unthreatened. Sooner or later, they will find that they who default in
protecting the rights of the many will end up without rights like the
many. The apathy of those who can make a difference is the reason why
violations of human rights continue to prosper. The worst enemy of human
rights is not its non believers but the fence sitters who will not lift
a finger despite their violations. If we have learned anything from
September 11 wrote New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman, it is
that if you dont visit a bad neighborhood, it will visit you.

Our work of protecting human rights is not yet finished. With the
incursions and threats of incursion to our human rights at this crucial
moment in our history, the clarion call to each one of us is to
consecrate our lives to the great cause of upholding our human rights.
When Rizal turned his face towards the rising sun, he saw hope in a
heroic people carrying on the fight. Let us not allow the shadow of
ignorance, indifference or indolence eclipse this hope so that we may
continue to see a tomorrow begin in the East.

Thank you and again, congratulations.


CJs Footnotes: Zaide and Zaide, Martyrdom at Bagumbayan in Jose
Rizal: Works and Writings of a Genius, Writer, Scientist and National
Hero (1994). Diokno, J. A Nation for Our Children (1987), pp. 4-5.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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