Right and rights GE
Last week, I wrote about how many Filipinos remain unconvinced about the need for a respect for human rights, which they see as a Western imposition and/or an obstacle — expressed as “too much democracy” — to national development.
This disdain, even contempt, for human rights, has allowed the government to get away with a war on drugs, which has claimed nearly 20,000 lives, before people began to wonder if maybe something was wrong with this whole approach.
Beyond the war on drugs, we fail to see how the lack of a respect for human rights affects us in many ways, from our traffic congestion to the neighbors’ all-night, full-volume karaoke, from our trials and tribulations on the MRT, to the current dengue vaccine scandal.
This is why I’m urging a review of our human rights education, which is actually mandatory for schools and many government agencies, including the Philippine National Police. I doubt that “more” human rights education will convince people; the problem is in the quality of the human rights education.
This year will be an opportune time for revisiting and revising our human rights information and education programs, first because we will be going into a full implementation of new college General Education (GE) curricula for the schoolyear 2018-2019 where human rights education can be integrated, and second because this year marks the 70th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The right GE must incorporate human rights.
Last Friday, I began to write about the problem with the very concept of “rights,” which would be more relevant to Filipinos if we used the word karapatan in Tagalog, and equivalents in other languages like katungod in Cebuano.
But even more basic than “rights” is “human.” The lack of respect for human rights is a lack of respect for humans. Behind the neglect of the MRT, behind the rush to get the dengue vaccine into the market, was a trivialization of human life.
More human than others
A disdain for human rights comes from the idea that some are more “human” than others. Even the history of human rights will show this all too blatantly, the US Bill of Rights, for example, at first extended only to white men. The slaves were excluded, and so were women and children.
In many parts of the world, the exclusions are still there; Saudi Arabia, for example, only recently allowed women to drive. In the Philippines, we can be proud to say we have ratified most of the international human rights instruments on women, children, migrants, prisoners, but in practice, we remain remiss, and the most glaring is in the way the poor remain subhuman, which is why the war on drugs could proceed with such savagery, and result, initially with such weak protest.
The irony is that we do have a sense of entitlement, but one which is marked by rugged individualism and that constantly expresses itself in the tragedy of the commons. We have university students who resist antilittering rules because, they claim, it violates their individual freedoms. In the same token, we had bikers resisting efforts to curb their use of university grounds when we began to get more reports of their harassing nonbikers. It was, they protested, their right to use UP grounds.
This individual sense of entitlement needs to be studied as it contrasts with very communal worldviews, particularly that of kapwa, a word that defies English translation. In broad terms, kapwa sees individual good and individual welfare as intricately related to that of people around us.
When draft versions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were first circulated in 1947, it drew criticism from the American Anthropological Association, its members pointing out the irony of the declaration coming from Western countries, with its history of colonialism (I will add “brutal” colonialism).
That critique should be resurrected for discussion together with models from other cultures to better arrive at a truly universal (or, I prefer, ecumenical) definitions of human rights, including the African “ubuntu,” very well summarized as “I am because we are.”
We will need to go back to the history of human rights, not as dates and names of philosophers but as ideas that are constantly changing, in response to the times. We think of slavery as an abomination of the past, yet the case of a Filipino-American writer’s posthumous and confessional article last year, describing how his family had employed a Filipina for 56 years without wages, reminds us to look hard at our concepts of “human” and “rights.”
Human rights education can be incorporated into all kinds of general education subjects, including “Science, Technology and Society,” a new requirement for colleges. There, we can and should discuss the many flagrant violations of human rights through the ages, such as experimenting on people with drugs (and, today, with vaccines). I mentioned in my last column that another required course, on ethics, can be used as well to talk about human rights, and a topic that young people can relate to would be the way cosmetics and supplements are advertised with false claims, an often unrecognized form of human rights violation.
Young people will relate as well to the right to marry and to have a family. The right to marry, it should be explained, is the right to marry a person of your choice, in other words, a person you love. Yet today in many cultures, some in the Philippines, you do not marry but are married off. I have been working with the education of national minorities and one problem we’ve had is young bright girls being taken out of school because their parents had agreed to marry, some will say sell them off, sometimes as young as 12 or 13.
All said, there will always be a historical component to human rights education, whatever aspect that needs to be discussed. And again, a facts-based memory of martial law is important because our experiences during that dark period show how the violation of human rights did in fact prevent us from developing, politically, culturally and economically.
Just to give an example, one which shows that even a subject like math can have a human rights angle, the budget for Philippine education reached its peak of a 31.5-percent share of the total budget in 1957, under President Ramon Magsaysay, then began to drop, with the largest decreases under martial law as more money had to go to the military. It dipped to its lowest level at 7.6 percent in 1981, under martial rule.
Our education system has never quite recovered from that emasculation of our human rights with a current 16-percent share of the latest approved national budget.
We haven’t even started to calculate the costs—in lives lost, lives destroyed—of human rights violations, as well as the benefits, of nations moving forward because they respected human rights.
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