Thursday, January 21, 2021

Unhinged leaders, mental health and political rights


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WHAT happened in the United States in recent days, when thousands of loyal supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol Complex housing the US Congress, is a jarring reminder of what insane and unhinged leaders can do. At a time when political discourse — regardless of its quality — has become too accessible to ordinary citizens, when the physical distance between a politician’s articulation and a citizen’s ear is now breached by modern technology, and when it is easier to peddle lies, disinformation and fakery, it is time to reflect on whether political rights should be limited to those who are sane.

However, any move to consider mental health and sanity as requirements in the exercise of political rights face an enormous legal challenge, both in domestic and international law.
Republic Act (RA) 11036, also known as “The Mental Health Act,” passed in 2017, is clear. In Chapter I, Section 2 of the Act, the state upholds that all persons with mental health conditions should be “able to exercise the full range of human rights and participate fully in society and at work, free from stigmatization and discrimination.” This is reiterated in Chapter 2, Section 5, which ensures that they are able to exercise all their inherent civil, political, economic, social, religious, educational and cultural rights free from discrimination.

It is fairly established that the most fundamental political right is the right to political participation, which includes the right to vote, as well as the right to seek political office. Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights upholds the right of every person to suffrage, while Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights directs state parties to protect the right of their citizens to participate in political affairs, to vote and to be elected.

It is also a fact that while these rights are guaranteed, the act of voting and running for office are nevertheless limited to those who meet the qualifications prescribed by the 1987 Constitution, which generally are limited to the possession of Filipino citizenship, adequate residency and age. The Constitution explicitly excludes educational attainment and even physical and mental health as requirements for voting and for running for office.

The passage of RA 11036 effectively renders it illegal to discriminate against persons with mental health conditions. It is a rights-based law that fully accords them with the broadest range of rights, including political rights and the right to run for public office.

And yet, what we saw recently in the US tells us of the havoc that a leader with a destructive mental state can wreak on the Republic. While institutional mechanisms are in place, particularly those that are articulated as essential elements of the functioning of a democratic system of government that ensure not only a system of checks and balances, but also of political accountability, the danger not only to national, but even to regional and international security, cannot be taken lightly.

While one can marvel at the resilience of the American political system, seen in the speed by which its Congress was able to recover its bearings to continue the certification of the votes for President-elect Joseph Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris just hours after the proceedings were rudely and violently interrupted by what amounted to an insurrection mounted upon the instigation of Trump, other political systems may not be as fortunate. This is even made more compelling in political systems where the political institutions upon which the responsibility to check and balance executive power are weak and have histories of being beholden and pliant, if not captured, by the executive.

It is therefore apparent that relying on a system of checks and balances to ensure that unhinged leaders will be removed from office as soon as they engage in destructive actions is more a luxury. In some instances, removing a person from office, either through impeachment or by other means, may already be too late. Thus, there is reason for some to look for mechanisms that are more preventive.

However, this is a move that is not supported by the current legal landscape in the Philippines. Under the present legal environment, it is not possible to require candidates and persons running for office to undergo mental health assessment. Any licensed mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist, would violate the oaths they took if they render such assessment and disclose it to the public. They cannot, even in their capacities as citizens, render their own expert opinion and diagnose a leader, or a candidate, and reveal such in the guise of civic duty, without undermining the very protections which RA 11036 accords persons with mental health conditions to be free from stigmatization and discrimination.

The law is explicit in its protection of the confidentiality of all information pertaining to the mental health condition of any person, except under specified situations. Running for office is not included as one of the exceptions enumerated in Chapter II, Section 5, letter l of RA 11036 that would allow the public disclosure of the mental health condition of a person.

Certainly, a law can be passed to amend RA 11036 to include running for a political position as an exemption, considering that such is imbued with public interest. It is even possible to include mental health as a precondition for the exercise of the political right of seeking an office. But aside from upending the intent of RA 11036 by literally contradicting its fundamental premise, it would also be a controversial move, as it would be patently discriminatory.

In the end, what will protect us from insane leaders and unhinged politicians would be to ensure that our political institutions remain healthy, and that our society remains resilient. It is a tall order, but we don’t have a choice.



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