There’s the Rub


There were a couple of seemingly unrelated stories on our pages last weekend.

The first had to do with human rights abuses continuing to proliferate in this country. The US State Department’s 2014 Human Rights Report said so. Extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances by government forces, it said, remain rampant. State Secretary John Kerry emphasized the importance of the report thus: “This is not some high-minded exercise, this is about accountability. This is about ending impunity.”


Commission on Human Rights chief Etta Rosales agreed with the assessment. Though the military has issued policies to promote human rights, she said, they have not been enforced. She cited the court martial of soldiers accused of killing the wife and two sons of an antimining tribal leader in October 2012 which has been dragging on “till kingdom come,” the gunning down of two Ozamis Gang members as they were being transported from Cavite to Laguna, the unsolved disappearance of Jonas Burgos, politically motivated killings involving cops and soldiers.

The second story had to do with the slaying of Judge Reynerio Estacio. He was about to leave for work when gunmen sprung up in front of his car and opened fire. He took in seven bullets and was dead on arrival at the hospital. People who knew him praised him for being a courageous and principled judge. In life, he had made progressive rulings, among them scrapping the ban on Muslim women wearing veils in the Universidad de Zamboanga, stopping Romeo Jalosjos, a convicted rapist, from joining Zamboanga’s voters’ list, and citing the Western Mindanao CIDG (Criminal Investigation and Detection Group) head for contempt for failing to produce an Abu Sayyaf suspect in court.


Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno condemned the killing, vowing Estacio would not end up just another statistic among the victims of violent crimes in this country. She lamented however the vulnerability of lawyers and judges to such attacks. Unfortunately, she said, the judiciary does not have the resources to combat violence against its members but can rely only on the police to protect them.

What makes these stories seemingly unrelated is that the first is about human rights while the second is about crime, the first has a lot more gray areas while the second is black and white, the first has to do with victims who may not be innocent while the second has to do with a victim who isn’t just innocent but exemplary. Surely, if they have any connection, it can only be tenuous or marginal?

Not at all. In fact, they are related directly as cause is to effect.

The reason human rights abuses riot in this country is our willingness to turn a blind eye to them, if not tolerate them. You can’t find more dramatic proof of that than Rodrigo Duterte threatening to kill rice smugglers in Davao City and earlier offering a P5-million reward to anyone bringing him the head, completely literally, of a suspect who has been eluding him. The surprising thing, as Philippine Human Rights Watch head Carlos Conde pointed out, was not that Duterte felt free to say these things but that we felt free only to be amused by it. He said the first right in the halls of the Senate, and the senators found it neither strange nor reprehensible. Criminals were human wrongs.

The human rights victims Rosales mentioned offhand fall more or less in the same category: the family of a “radical,” members of a criminal gang, a suspected communist, political rivals. Who’s going to shed a tear for them? Maybe the world is better off without them, maybe we’re better off without them. Maybe we need less human rights and more of Duterte’s brand of justice.

That is what makes Kerry’s comment a most critical one: Defending human rights “is not some high-minded exercise, it is about accountability, it is about ending impunity.” That is something I’ve been saying all along. For too long have we seen human rights as an amenity of civilization that an impoverished country like ours can do without. Worse, for too long have we seen human rights as something that protects only criminals, derelicts, the dregs of the earth.

In fact, human rights protect the public, serve the people, and help to end impunity.


Judge Estacio shows so. He in fact is a victim of impunity. He in fact is a victim of a culture that makes killing people the easiest thing in the world—there is little to fear. Or indeed worse, there is little to deter: not the police, not the courts, not conscience.

It is not completely true, as Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno says, that lawyers and judges are defenseless against cutthroats they can only depend on the police to protect them. Doing their job honestly, faithfully and zealously is their best defense and protection against mayhem. Impunity finds fertile soil in the impression that the courts drag their feet even with the wreakers of the Maguindanao massacre, we are better off resorting to extralegal solutions. Impunity finds fertile soil in the courts allowing the Dutertes of this world to spit on human rights, trash human rights, trample human rights.

Impunity is universal, impunity is equal opportunity, impunity, like Biblical rain, falls on the good and the bad. We cannot say, “We’ll allow impunity only to befall the guilty, the  halang  ang  kaluluwa, but we’ll not allow it to befall the innocent, the exemplary.” You allow impunity to befall the one, you allow impunity to befall the other. Allowing cops and soldiers to shoot down suspects, enemies of the state, and unsavory individuals does not put the fear of God or the law in criminals, it puts the joy of freedom in them. Vampires do not fear the dark, which the culture of impunity is, they revel in them.

The hand that made Jonas Burgos disappear is the same hand that made Judge Estacio’s bullet-riddled corpse appear.

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