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Rule of, rule by

/ 05:12 AM January 18, 2019

Several of my lawyer friends have been quite depressed about what they feel is a deterioration of “rule of law,” citing several recent court decisions that seem to mock our laws.

One of them added: “And look, do people care? Ramon Revilla, declared innocent by some twisting of the law, has been climbing up the public opinion surveys for senatorial bets.”

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I think this shows, in part, how powerful the actor factor remains, that the celebrity candidates are doing very well or even better than the ones appearing all over the country on billboards with President Duterte.

But I’ve wondered, too, if “law” and “laws” remain concepts that are abstract or, in worse instances, oppressive for the majority of Filipinos, especially the distinction between “rule of law” and “rule by law.”

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Rule of law invokes “law” as a concept that goes back several centuries, arguing that we have to be governed, not by people, but by the principle of fairness. Rule of law assures citizens that the laws are there, protecting citizens in many ways, if we use this principle of fairness.

For example, we have a Philippine Competition Commission, with a large staff looking into companies that might be violating antimonopoly laws. This is the rule of law at work, trying to create a level field for businesses to compete and, more importantly, for consumers to have choices and fair prices.

Rule of law was part and parcel of revolts against monarchies and, in modern times, dictators, and we can be proud to say we have risen to the challenge of defending rule of law, as in 1986.

But, largely, we remain feudal, our politicians (and, in the private sector, executives and managers) governing much like warlords of medieval societies, with no checks and balances. Many of us accept feudal norms as givens, and this is reflected in our continuing reliance on influence networks, what the Chinese call “guanxi”: Who do you know in the bureaucracy who can get to the big bosses?

In fairness, we’ve been cutting down on those influence networks, as in the phaseout of fixers in many government agencies. But we know, too, how the big-time fixers are still around, exemplified by Janet Napoles who could run off with billions of pesos obtained by creating connections to politicians and conspiring with them to launder their pork barrel. Yes, she’s in prison now, but she just might have her prison sentence reduced by riding on the current “rule by law” trend.

What to do then?

We need to get people to be more aware of the benefits of rule of law as early as possible, in schools and, for adults, through mass media.

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But look at how we’re handicapped at the level of language. Our lack of prepositions—“of” and “by” are both “ng” in Filipino—complicates matters.  The Chinese lack those prepositions, too, a significant matter in ongoing debates about democracy there.

I did an online translate from English to Filipino and, given online translations’ notoriety for inaccurate and sometimes funny results, I did get results that turned out to be helpful.

“Rule of law” translated as “paghahari ng batas,” and “rule by law” was “nangagpupuno  sa pamamagitan ng kautusan.” Certainly needs refining, but we could start there. For starters, I would tackle the difference between “kautusan,” using Marcos’ thousands of presidential decrees as examples, and “batas.”

Let’s take this personally, too. What messages do we send out to our family (especially our children) and to our employees when we don’t pay fair wages and benefits? This should cover household hires like drivers, helpers, caregivers.

Another challenge: How are we with traffic laws?

Caught you there. Traffic laws do stretch our commitment to rule of law. I fasten my seat belt, observe speed limits and don’t text while driving because I believe laws can be good for people, even crucially save lives. Yet, on two occasions some years back, I’ve had to argue with police about their traps, such as a one-way sign hidden behind a post. I won my case both times; I smiled and told them I should write about the incident in my Inquirer column so people would know about the sign… and the enforcers behind the signs.

Here, I’m thinking of the late civil rights defender Jose Diokno and his wise view that “not all that is legal is just, and not all that is just is legal.”

Public good, fairness, justice—that’s what rule of law is all about.

[email protected]

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