Rodrigo Duterte decisively won the presidency in May 2016. He had a clear vision of governance and society and the promise of strong leadership that will change the Philippines. Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in September 21, 1972 although Proclamation 1081 was actually implemented two days later. His avowed mission was to defeat a rightist-leftist conspiracy and build a new society for the Philippines. Finally, President Benigno Aquino III was inaugurated President June 30, 2010 and governed for six years, purpotedly following the straight path of governance, until 11 weeks ago when he yieled the presidency to the mayor from Mindanao. Yes, it has only been that long and now it is a very different Philippines.
All these three presidents articulated the rationale of their presidency around moral crusades—whether it is against the oligarchy for Marcos, corruption for Aquino, and illegal drugs for Duterte. All these presidents, in my view, justified violations of human rights of individuals in the pursuit of the big national goals they had appropriated.
The scale, of course, is different. The number of human rights violations during the Marcos era and the numbers of casualties we are seeing now in the war against drugs cannot be compared to the corruption prosecutions launched during the Aquino administration. We know that the zeal with which President Aquino went after former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did not end up with her assasination in the hospital or elsewhere and certainly, eventually, due process did work with Arroyo’s acquittal. But tell that to the Arroyo family or for that matter to the family of Chief Justice Renato Corona whose impeachment was pursued mainly for political reasons.
Injustice is injustice, and whether it is done to one or to many, one must ask why such things happen. I come from the tradition that does not allow the derogation of any basic human right, and in particular procedural rights of due process. There may be a hierarchy of substantive rights, for example the right to life (which include right to human dignity, right to food, and right to a sound environment, among others) is superior over the right to property which may be limited by the former if necessary for public interest. But procedural due process, in my view, is absolutely essential and cannot be diminished for any person or group.
As for the argument that human rights are relative and culturally based, while I might agree that its particular manifestations are likely to be influenced by culture, the universality of due process cannot be denied. To quote the greatest lawyer this country has ever produced, Ka Pepe Diokno: “No cause is more worthy than the cause of human rights… they are what makes a man human. Deny them and you deny man’s humanity.”
Yet it happens: this utter disregard of due process. In the time of Marcos many times and under a veil of constitutional authoritarianism; in the time of Aquino, directed at specific individuals; and now in Duterte, at a whole class of people, drug pushers and users, mostly from poor neighborhoods, expendable in the view of the President and his supporters.
In my view, if we fail to rise to this latest challenge on human rights and stop the massacre of the poor, we will pay a high price as a society. Sadly, future generations will have to deal with it.
This is not the first time. We also failed, as a society, to be accountable to those who suffered under martial law. We have made progress, for sure, with the law allowing victims to claim compensation for what was done to them but all of that is being undermined now, not the least because of the decision by President Duterte to have Marcos buried in the Libingan ng Mga Bayani.
I do not question the President’s sincerity in waging a war against drugs. I acknowledge that there might already be tangible results but it is definitely too early to declare this a success. At what cost are we willing to pay to attain the kind of state that the administration is forcing upon us? Are we ready to cast aside the rule of law, sacrifice our beliefs in due process and respect for human rights, set aside our moral moorings in exchange for security even through retribution, violence, and impunity? Have we so desensitized our morals to a point where we have stopped being shocked?
For many years we have exerted all efforts to educate the security forces about human rights: to make them understand that human rights are not their enemy but a guidepost to proper behavior, especially in uncertain situations. We have gained much headway in these efforts. Many in the police and military have fully accepted human rights principles and their practical application. Now all of this is in danger of being erased, nay, reversed, by a presidential declaration practically guaranteeing impunity. How many years and generations will it take to undo the psychological damage that this war on drugs may cause to its purveyors? We will all pay the price for our moral failure to stand up against what is being done to alleged drug pushers and users.
History has taught us that most horrendous and barbaric acts of violence against their fellow human beings are invariably founded on a warped and perverse notion of a utopia that their leaders conjure, imagine and forcibly impose upon their people. In a recent lecture (jointly sponsored by the university’s Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy Departments) on Thomas More’s Utopia that I delivered in the Ateneo de Manila, I pointed out how the original idea of a Utopia (published 500 years ago) has been distorted to justify human rights violations. One must take note that there is a reason Thomas More used the word Utopia, which literally (from the two Greek words joined by More to form one word) means “not a place,” to describe his imaginary heaven. It stands to reason to propose that this is because he knew that such a place was never going to materialize. Certainly, More would be horrified at how Utopian visions later became the justification of many atrocities in world history.
Marcos’ new society war against oligarchs and communists, Aquino’s war against corruption, and Duterte’s war against drugs may have the best of intentions but its excesses and disregard of procedural rights, for groups and/or individuals although different in scale, nullified/nullifies what they were/are suppose to achieve. The point is utopian thinking and self-righteousness can be the enemy of human rights when it is used to justify these excesses and disregard for these fundamental rights.
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