In the line of fire
Seventy years ago last Monday, on Dec. 10, 1948, the Philippines was one of the first 48 nations to sign what would become the world’s most translated document: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
It contains “perhaps the most resonant and beautiful words of any international agreement, that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,’” said former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.
These economic, social, political, cultural and civic rights “are inalienable entitlements of all people, at all times, and in all places,” he added.
Those were the heady days. The human rights situation in the world today, alas, runs in the opposite direction, with the very notion itself under attack, and democracy in retreat in many parts of the globe.
Who knew the Philippines, once a beacon of the freedom struggle in Asia and a charter supporter of the UDHR, would end up where it is now — with a President who looks at the idea of human rights with outright hostility, and has responded to any criticism of his worldview and governance with threats of violence and repression?
As late as October this year, President Duterte was still at it, spewing venom against human rights defenders both here and abroad.
If his foreign critics were in the country, he said, he would have them “salvaged” — the Marcos-era term for summary killings.
How the President said it in the vernacular was even more unsettling: “Pakabugok nitong mga put*ng in*ng ’to oy. Patawarin sana sila ng… Kaya kung dito ’yan sa Pilipinas, sinalvage ko na ’yan. Anak ng p*ta.”
The fact that the country’s Commission on Human Rights is an office established by the 1987 Constitution, reflecting the sovereign importance the Constitution places on the protection and preservation of the rights and freedoms of citizens, appears to be of no consequence to Mr. Duterte.
In November last year, perorating again about his war on drugs, the President said: “Wala tayong patawad diyan. Wala ’yang human rights, wala ’yan. Si Gascon, ah wala ’yan, sipain ko pa ’yan (We’d be unforgiving. Human rights — that’s nothing. Gascon, I’ll even kick him).”
Chito Gascon is the chair of the Commission on Human Rights.
The President also threatened to slap UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard when she raised grave concerns over the conduct of the drug war.
Al-Hussein and the European Union have been the subject of invective, while peace advocates have been labeled “terrorists.”
Various individuals, institutions and media who have dared criticize the Duterte administration’s policies have been threatened and vilified, if not by Malacañang, then by the President’s army of social media partisans, who express scorn for human rights but unhesitatingly claim due process for themselves when accountability is asked of them and their patrons.
“Being a human rights defender in a country such as the Philippines… means putting oneself in the line of fire,” said Cristina Palabay of the human rights alliance Karapatan.
Indeed, the country has earned for itself a discreditable place as the second deadliest country in the world, and the most dangerous in Asia, for human rights workers, especially land and environmental defenders, according to Global Witness, an international nongovernment organization focusing on human rights abuses and corruption.
Per Global Witness’ tally, nine land and environmental defenders were killed in the Philippines in the first half of 2018 alone.
Last year, 48 environmentalists were killed in the country, an almost twofold increase from the 28 killings recorded in 2016.
The reasons behind the surge in the killings, said the watchdog, include “… a president who is brazenly antihuman rights, the militarization of communities, multiple armed groups and the failure of government bodies to provide protection for at-risk activists.”
Elsewhere in the world, a survey by the London-based Business and Human Rights Resource Center recorded a 34-percent global rise in attacks against human rights activists in 2017, including 120 alleged murders and hundreds of cases involving threats, assaults and intimidation.
Victims included unionists, protesters, whistleblowers, indigenous communities, lawyers and NGOs fighting for human rights and the accountability of corporate interests.
The Philippines needn’t have joined that ignoble bandwagon; the country was one of the original world champions of human rights, and has a resounding Bill of Rights in its Constitution.
Now it’s become a leading light of another alliance altogether — the world’s antihuman rights club. For shame.