Recalibrating human rights in an incipient narco-state



(Part 2 of a series on drugs in the Philippines)

MANY have already judged the killing of Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr. as a case of extrajudicial killing, or EJK. Indeed, if one operates under the legal definition of EJK, which is the killing of a person by governmental authorities without the sanction of any judicialproceeding or legal process, the death of Mayor Espinosa has all the ingredients.

However, one has to realize that the term EJK has already mutated and has acquired a politicized meaning. It is now being deployed to imply automatic culpability on the state as an institution in every killing. There is a concerted effort to paint EJK as if it is a deliberate state policy. In this context, EJK has transmogrified from being a mere legal category in the taxonomy of deaths, into a label that has attached to a move by critics to discredit a President they hate.

The root of this lies in the discourse of human rights institutionalized in Western political theory and modern states. The classical human rights discourse looks at the state as one that needs to be restrained as a necessary evil. Any modern constitution is a document that imposes limits on state power, and the bill of rights is seen as a shield of ordinary citizens against anticipated state abuses. This Western construct has prioritized individual rights over the collective, and has denied the state the possibility that it too needs protection from its own organs that could act to threaten it, as when there are coups, or when rogue officials collaborate with lawless elements to undermine it. Yet, in situations where states are under threat by its own organs, the onus still rests on its legitimate parts to respect the rights even of people who seek to undermine it. Coup plotters and rogue drug-protecting politicians and law enforcers still have their human rights reserved in a modern state.

Hence, it is easy to assume that any EJK is always sanctioned or, if not, tolerated by the state, even if the killing is at the hands of those who seek to undermine it.

The case of the killing of Mayor Espinosa speaks of an incipient narco-state that is being attacked from within. It reveals a drug problem that has penetrated all branches of government and at all levels. The state was helpless in securing the life of Mayor Espinosa, who was already under its custody. The suspicious narrative surrounding his death indicates that it mayhave been an act by rogue elements to protect the drug trade in which the mayor and his son allegedly had a critical role.

There is a fundamental problem when opponents of the drug war of the President deploy the EJK label to implicate him as having command responsibility. In doing so, they make it appear as if the police who killed Mayor Espinosa somehow acted at the behest of the President as head of state, and that rubbing out witnesses already in custody is a matter of state policy.

The realities of being in an incipient narco-state, where all branches and all levels of government appear to have signs of being invaded by agents whose fortunes, political or otherwise, rest on trading drugs, make it impossible to treat the state as a monolithic structure. The state in the incipient stage of being a narco-state is a state in distress that also needs help and protection.

Yet the discourse on human rights has traditionally drawn its logic from a flawed assumption that states always act as one single agency.

Hence, human rights advocacy must begin to unpack the category of the state, and consequently recalibrate its own responses. It must begin to imagine how universal entitlements can be promoted not as a black and white dualism, but as a contextualized array of protective mechanisms. It must begin to recognize that the right to a peaceful and secure life free from threats is also a fundamental right.

It is necessary to begin to talk about human rights no longer as an individual construct but in collective and relational terms, and that the state also needs protection when the collective rights of people are threatened by its own organs. It is about time that human rights advocates cease having this adversarial role against the state and take on a nuanced, multi-faceted approach, particularly in situations where the state is under attack, and its ability to provide its citizens their basic and fundamental human rights is being compromised.

The challenge therefore is for human rights advocacy in an incipient narco-state such as ours not to excessively tie the hands of the state and unwittingly strengthen the hands of those who seek to undermine it. Human rights must also protect the right of a weak state so that it can be strong enough to protect the rights of its citizens.

Next: Toward finding a sustainable solution to the drug problem


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  1. “the discourse on human rights has traditionally drawn its logic from a flawed assumption that states always act as one single agency.”

    this is the premise of the article and it is false. There is no such assumption. All agents are responsible for their own actions. If an agent of the state, for example a police officer, is found to commit a crime, does the president go to jail? Of course not.

    What the article suggests is that the police in Phils are so corrupt that they are acting against the state, against the Presidents orders. In that case, should not the war be on police, rather than drugs?

  2. In short it is the western lenses that we have been forced to wear as a vassal state that distorts the bigger picture. The state is the structure that shelters the people and as such must it must have priority over individual human rights to defend its integrity against elements who are out to undermine it. Besides, how sincere is the American-led West really in advocating human rights? With open eyes one can see the answer for himself. The invisible chains that shackle us as a people are in the mind, and the first step towards liberation is to recognize our brainwashed state before we can even shed it. Filipinism is the answer.

  3. Such a very enlightening article. Wonderful and simply elaborated that can be understood by the people. Too bad this might be too high for delima, trillanes and aquino to understand. I look forward to your next article. Good work too. Congratulations!