The politicization of human rights
Never was my interest drawn to the US presidential election until September, when it became clear that Rodrigo Duterte’s own election as president was proving to be greatly divisive. Seeking enlightenment on how Western democracies choose their leaders, I closely followed the campaign trail of Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. To be sure, the two presidential aspirants are poles apart. Yet, despite their fundamental differences, Trump and Clinton flaunt themselves as though they share the same advocacy—human rights.
This would have been a welcome circumstance had their supposed human rights crusade been ideological. But it was not, and quite far from it. Rather, it was purely political and intended to propel one’s candidacy while pulling down the other. Not surprisingly, Clinton joined the bandwagon in vilifying Trump for his derogatory remarks on undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and women. With the recent release of a 2005 recording of his crass remarks on power and women, the business mogul’s candidacy went on a downward spiral. Undaunted, Trump said his “words” were not comparable to the “deeds” of Bill Clinton, his rival’s husband. Trump also hit his rival for supporting the US war on Iraq, which, despite the absence of weapons of mass destruction, was “preemptively” attacked nonetheless for its purported gross violations of human rights.
In other words, Trump argues that Clinton does not have the moral ascendancy to castigate him on human rights issues because she herself does not have a good track record on human rights to speak of.
The argument sounds familiar, doesn’t it? When the Senate committee on justice started to look into the spate of extrajudicial killings, President Duterte took offense. His political allies immediately came to his aid, leading to Sen. Leila de Lima’s immediate ouster as committee chair and her replacement by Sen. Richard Gordon. Then the House of Representatives and the Department of Justice launched an all-out inquiry into De Lima’s alleged involvement in the illegal drug trade. Gordon has terminated the Senate inquiry but the matter remains unsettled; in Sen. Antonio Trillanes’ view, the closure of the proceedings amounted to a cover-up.
This is the danger of wielding human rights as a political weapon, whether to overthrow a regime or silence the opposition. Their enjoyment becomes arbitrary and lines are drawn between the administration and anyone not supportive of it. As a result, where the majority sees a fraction of the population as a menace to society, the latter can easily be made to relinquish the right to live by state authority. This is the tyranny of the majority at its worst.
Speaking to soldiers of the 10th Infantry Division in a military camp in Mawab, Compostela Valley, on Sept. 20, Mr. Duterte assured them of full protection from liability: “For as long as there is the power to pardon sa Constitution, yan ang weapon ko against crime. Mag-massacre kayo ng isang daan, isang daan din kayo, eh di pardoned lahat kayo—restored to full political and civil rights plus a promotion to boot.”
I remember a friend once telling me, “Since when did life become so cheap?” Her question got stuck in my head, which is why every time I read and hear news about drug-related deaths, I ask myself the same thing. Since when did criminals forfeit the right to live? Since when did we have the moral ascendancy to judge who deserves to die? Since when did we ever become self-absorbed and self-righteous?
On Nov. 8, America’s fate will be decided as to who between a proud racist-misogynist and an impulsive warmonger will emerge victor in the presidential polls. Meanwhile, for the next five years and nine months, the Philippines will remain under the leadership of a man who has brazenly compared his relentless war on drugs to Hitler’s extermination of the Jews.
God bless America. And God bless the Philippines.
Neil B. Nucup is a private lawyer-turned-civil servant.