If you were in a position of power and authority in government and have vowed to “preserve and defend the Constitution” and to “do justice to every man,” then you would exert every effort to ensure that those who you appoint to various positions have the necessary qualifications, competence and experience for the job.
This holds true in just about any office in the bureaucracy, but more so in sensitive positions.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) is one such office. It was created by the 1987 Constitution as an independent body precisely to prevent violations of human rights that took place under the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. from 1972 to 1986.
The human rights field includes not only civil and political rights but also social and cultural rights. The United Nations also recognizes the right to development. Then there’s the right to self-determination of peoples.
With such a broad scope, the CHR must be led by people with proven integrity as well as wide expertise and experience in defense of human rights.
Unfortunately, we see the recent appointment to the CHR of two lawyers with no background at all or proven competence and expertise in human rights work as a setback for human rights protection in this country.
The CHR cannot be led by people without the firm commitment to defend human rights against all odds, since they are likely to cross swords with the state security apparatus consisting of the military and the police, as well as LGUs and local warlords.
The initial appointments to the CHR are two lawyers who have no experience at all in the human rights field. But the CHR is not a venue for on-the-job training or trial-and-error experiments, because in many cases, it’s a matter of life and death, as well as enjoyment of freedom or loss of it.
It is bad enough that as things now stand, the CHR can only recommend charges against those who abuse or violate human rights after a thorough investigation.
Worse is when human rights cases are decided in favor of the perpetrators rather than the victims even if the evidence shows a clear infringement of basic human rights.
The previous administration of Rodrigo Duterte conveniently ignored the Bill of Rights in the 1987 Constitution that guaranteed the right to life, the right to peaceably assemble for redress of grievances and the enjoyment of freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Recall Duterte’s infamous statement: “Your concern is human rights, my concern is human lives,” in answer to the strong stand of human rights advocates that his government had failed to protect human rights.
But this is a false dichotomy. Human rights and human lives are intertwined, not separate from one another. The semantic sleight-of-hand gave rise to a situation where human rights—and human lives— had to be sacrificed to protect the rest of the population from the scourge of illegal drugs, to protect the rest of the population from drug traffickers and drug addicts who turn to crime, such as murder.
The second Marcos administration does not seem too eager to change its predecessor’s dim view of human rights, if its choices for the leadership of the constitutional body are any indication.
The newly appointed CHR chief, Richard Palpal-Latoc, is a law
partner and former deputy of recently resigned Executive Secretary Victor Rodriguez, and has stoked skepticism among rights advocates.
The other appointed commissioner, lawyer Beda Angeles Epres, used to be a career official in the Office of the Ombudsman. They will serve a seven-year term from 2022 to 2029.
Former CHR chairperson Etta Rosales slammed the appointment of Palpal-Latoc as new chairman of the agency: “I am gravely concerned that the newly appointed chairman is someone with no demonstrated track record or training in human rights issues.
“This is a setback not only for the agency itself, but the victims of human rights violations in the country…A responsibility of this magnitude does not only require knowledge and skill, but the strength of character to speak truth to power on behalf of the oppressed.”
Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said Palpal-Latoc “seems to be a political appointee [considering] his background working for Marcos Jr. through Rodriguez; and both appear not to have any background or public positions on human rights issues.”
She noted that the appointment of Palpal-Latoc and Epres was “not transparent and without consultation, especially with human rights groups.”
Nevertheless, Karapatan “will continue to engage with the incoming new members of the commission especially in pursuing justice and accountability of the previous Duterte administration and in the continuing defense of people’s rights, welfare and dignity.”
According to Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson, the appointments are a “slap in the face of victims of human rights abuses” and described Palpal-Latoc as a “loyalist lawyer with no discernible experience in human rights work.”
He said Palpal-Latoc would “have a steep hill to climb to demonstrate that he deserves to sit in that chair, and that he knows up from down about the Philippines’ international commitments on human rights.”