WHEN a foreign government or an international media organization deplores the human rights situation in the Philippines, or criticizes certain programs and policies of the government, who should be in the best position to clarify the situation, and who can explain best our government’s policies and programs for the promotion and protection of human rights?
I submit that the first and principal responder should be the republic’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and therefore its chairman. As the government agency tasked and funded to attend directly to human rights, the CHR should be the one which should be setting the record straight, and assuring the world that the country actively protects human rights and is not slipping back to the Middle Ages. They should be the most knowledgeable and articulate about the issues, and the most credible.
With his access to the facts and statistics reflecting the situation on the ground, and with a whole commission to back him, the CHR chairman can correct the mistakes and misinformation of observers and critics.
Waste of public resources
The way things are now, it is the presidential spokesman Harry Roque who does more of the talking, though largely without clarifying anything. CHR chairman Chito Gascon spends his time agreeing with or secretly cheering the derogatory statements being made.
The world’s false picture of human rights in the Philippines underscores the cluelessness and misguided agenda of Chairman Gascon, and the utter waste of public resources on the human rights commission.
The fact is, the human rights commission and its chairman are not very knowledgeable about the human rights situation in the country. They are not expert on their area of responsibility, because they have concerned themselves with doing propaganda against the government, instead of checking violations and promoting human rights.
They spend their time feeding the generally unsubstantiated reports of international human rights organizations and UN human rights officials. They even slapped the country by hosting, at public expense, the United Nations human rights rapporteur, Ms Agnes Callamard.
Against state violators only
The problem starts with chairman Gascon. He distorted the commission’s mission in July 2017 when he declared that the CHR’s mandate is “to make sure that the government and agencies under it are held liable for human rights violations.”
He compounded this by claiming that the CHR is tasked to go only after state violators, and is not empowered to stop violations and violators in the private sector.
I have examined every sentence and every word in the constitutional provision for the human rights commission (Article XIII, Section 17); but I could not find the word “state” anywhere in the provision, or any mention of human rights violations by government and its agents.
Giving CHR a bad name
This is a perverted view of the work of the human rights commission. The CHR was thrown off track and taken into partisan politics from the moment President Benigno Aquino 3rd appointed Jose Luis Martin Gascon as the chairman of the commission.
Gascon did not espouse his anti-state orientation when Aquino was still in power. He looked away when massacres took place during that time and when the killings of journalists reached alarming levels.
Gascon’s predecessors Leila de Lima and Etta Rosales were not exactly more observant. De Lima as CHR chair tried her damndest to investigate and expose the Davao Death Squads when Rodrigo Duterte was still mayor; she only succeeded in developing a lasting enmity with Duterte. After the Mamasapano massacre, Rosales went through the motions of conducting a CHR investigation of possible human rights violations in Mamasapano. She claimed to have found nothing with her ocular inspection of the killing field, and did not come up with a report.
It must be said that the CHR has been poorly served by its top officials, and given a bad name.
A decent human rights record
Yet, ironically, the country has a decent human rights record. If we suspend disbelief for a moment, despite President Duterte’s incessant boasts about killing criminals and vulgarities about women, the record deserves more than outright dismissal.
What do we see in the record?
The Philippines is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) drafted by the United Nations (UN) in 1948; it was represented at the founding of the UN.
The country did not only accept the declaration, it has striven to adopt the UDHR to its own political system.
The Philippines adheres to the UDHR through the Bill of Rights in its Constitution, and continues to enact laws and policies that cater to specific concerns and sectors of human rights.
High among the protections provided by the Bill of Rights are due process of law and equal protection under the law.
Besides upholding civil rights, the Philippines has also worked hard at promoting human rights across a wide spectrum of concerns — economic, social and cultural.
Advanced labor policies
One significant area of success is instituting a national labor code and consolidating labor and social legislation to afford protection to labor, promote employment, and ensure industrial peace.
The Labor Code, a Marcos legacy, is the legal code governing employment practices and labor relations in the Philippines. The code stipulates standards in terms of wages and monetary benefits, hours of work, leaves, rest days, holiday pay, and benefits, among others.
Many countries across the world have hardly begun to move into the areas that the Philippines has ventured to advance the cause of human rights for its people.
How many can say what the Philippine labor code starkly states that a woman cannot be paid a lesser compensation than a man for work of equal value?
How many have gone as far as enacting an organic law to protect the rights of their indigenous peoples?
How many have mandated social security and health benefits for all workers?
Admittedly, there have been several instances of human rights violations in the country, to which various presidential administrations must plead guilty.
Notable was the period of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos, the years of authoritarianism. The record says: “A total of 398 disappearances, 1,388 extrajudicial killings, and 1,499 killed or wounded in massacres, were recorded but not every victim was accounted for.”
The current period under President Rodrigo Duterte bids for the same intensive scrutiny as the Marcos years because DU30 deliberately courts the ways of a strong leader. He expends a lot of energy in pursuit of his reform objectives.
One of these objectives is clearly the elimination of the threat and menace of illegal drugs, which in the president’s estimate could be fatal for his people, especially the young. He has threatened to kill drug dealers and drug addicts, and in the process several thousands have been killed.
The Philippine National Police, the main law enforcement force, has provided documentation of alleged killings, going as far as 4,000 victims. But opposition critics contend that the drug war victims could be as high as 12,000 or 14,000.
My principal quibble with the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) is that, as our principal human rights agency, it should be the one who can provide the vital statistics on the human rights situation, in the same way that the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) provides the figures on the national population, and the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) provides the figures on labor and employment in the country.
It does not. The CHR, if properly organized and led, should be able to tell us about the real human rights situation in the country. It will identify the problem areas for government to resolve. It will identify what is wanting or wrongheaded in government policies.
It should speak for the nation on the subject of human rights with the world