Last September at the height of public protests against the police killing of minors Kian delos Santos and Carl Arnaiz, a defensive President Duterte told the media that he had himself once been a lecturer on human rights in Davao’s police academy. “They have the syllabus about human rights,” he said; it was presumably distributed when he was teaching criminal law, evidence, and procedures.
He then said the police could never kill, especially children, except “in self-defense or when one’s life is in jeopardy.”
That brief exchange with the media got me thinking about how we might want to consider the possibility that Mr. Duterte does accept the need for human rights, but one that is framed mainly in legal terms, including exceptions.
I will suggest, too, that Mr. Duterte’s high approval ratings may be continuing because many Filipinos do agree with his position—one that is not necessarily against human rights but carries many reservations about human rights, including what he frequently declares: that human rights are a western imposition.
Generally, I’d say Filipinos are still cynical about the issue, well-captured in the way they will say “pa-human rights, human rights…” When words are repeated in Filipino (and many related languages), it suggests make-believe (for example, “bahay-bahayan”) or even deception (“doctor-doctor”). Not only do they think human rights are “western” but that these are also “para lang sa mayaman”—only for the rich. Note how that is also how many Filipinos describe law and justice.
We have to remember that the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was proclaimed on Dec. 10, 1948, (for young people, in the ancient past, but in terms of human history, a very recent event). Since then, there have been 10 international human rights treaties that are more specific—for example on the rights of women, children, the disabled, and migrants, and the Optional Protocol on the Convention against Torture (2012).
I do not recall the UDHR, or human rights, being discussed in grade school, high school, or college, from which I graduated in 1977.
It was only after martial law that direct discussions of human rights came up, mainly by groups opposed to martial law and exposing the plight of political detainees, torture, and disappearances. The thinking was that to support human rights you had to be a communist, so, with the exception of some brave religious schools, the issue of human rights was kept out of formal education.
Law students, I’m realizing now, did have courses on HR, but in a legal framework, as in the right to legal counsel, or the right to a fair trial, which Mr. Duterte presumably had when he was studying law.
The emphasis on a legalistic framework for lawyers, and the rest of Philippine society only getting minimal exposure during the Marcos era, is important. After the fall of the dictatorship in 1986, HR education entered the mainstream, almost with a vengeance.
But there is irony in the way human rights lectures are now mandatory in schools and government offices, even for the Philippine National Police, as Mr. Duterte reminds us—and, if I might add, in recent years with support from the European Union human rights advocates that Mr. Duterte so detests. Ironic because so many people still do not understand the concept.
The problem is that we think human rights can be “taught” through classroom lectures, somewhat like family planning. Students tell me they’re asked to memorize the rights of the child, for example, and one student told me how in a high school exam she was asked, “What are the 30 universal human rights?”—a reference to the 30 articles in the UDHR.
No wonder people are at best apathetic and, at worst, hostile to human rights discussions.
I wonder how many schools, or the PNP and other government offices, start with dissecting the very word “karapatan,” which I first heard from the great civil rights lawyer Jose Diokno during martial law. He pointed out that the root word was “dapat,” so karapatan is what should be, or what ought to be.
Many years later, I learned about the history of the evolution of “human rights” concepts, going back to the Greek Stoic philosophers and their proposals on “natural law,” which is
another way of saying “what ought to be.”
This year should be used to revisit our information and education materials on human rights and to transform Filipino consciousness of them, not as abstract principles but in terms of real-life applications. I’m pinpointing 2018 for two reasons. First, we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the UDHR in December, and second, starting with the new schoolyear (June for some, August for others), there will be a new GE (General Education) curriculum where real-life, practical and far-reaching discussions of human rights can be made.
For just one example, the new GE curriculum will require the teaching of ethics, which many teachers and parents welcome, mainly because they see it as a way to prevent corruption. But the worst thing that can happen is to fight corruption by declaring, in an ethics course, that corruption is wrong, or a sin, and that’s it.
People hate corruption when it’s other people who are stealing, but justify it when it’s a friend or relative involved, because, oh, the salary of government workers (especially of the police) is so low and they have families to feed, and it’s only a small amount compared to the stealing in high places. Or, with our leaders, dispensing with rights is rationalized as “I can develop the nation more rapidly without this nonsense about human rights.” Ethics courses are good places to discuss how people’s perceptions of rights are so tied to the many senses of entitlement.
We need to “animate”—make alive—human rights education, introducing it as early as grade school. Indeed, the children’s rights are now being discussed at that level, but, as I said, often in a mechanical way. We need to get grade school students to appreciate each right—for example, the right to an identity, linked to the right to a name, and this can be extended to the right to change one’s name with a discussion of a provision in the law on name change: “when the name is ridiculous, dishonorable, or extremely difficult to write or pronounce.”
Human rights education must build on the lived experiences of people—children and adults, women, men, transgenders—with human rights, processing their misgivings and reservations, including those of Mr. Duterte himself.
Next week I will discuss the most pressing needs, with practical examples, for human rights education, including the perception that HR is a western concept. I’ll intrigue you further by saying I agree it is a western concept, which does create many limitations, and which makes it even more imperative to discuss in our social and historical contexts, and in relation to our collective experiences.
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