Democracy & Governance: Deficit, Surplus, Unfinished Business

State of the PH in 2018: Why
Must We Live Within the Truth?

WHAT has happened to civil and political rights, and the rule of law, under two years of the Duterte administration?

What follows is the speech of Atty. Jose Manuel I. Diokno, dean of De La Salle University’s College of Law and national chairman of the Free Legal Assistance Group, at the forum on “Democracy and Governance in the Philippines: Deficit, Surplus, and Unfinished Business” that was organized by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, in partnership with the Office of the Ombudsman of the Philippines and the Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, on July 5, 2018, in Pasig City, Metro Manila.

IT’S QUITE a challenge to talk about civil and political rights and the rule of law under the Duterte Administration. There’s really no need to cite statistics, case studies, or other evidence. Everyone – whether for or against this administration – knows that the President is antagonistic to human rights and the rule of law.

When he was still campaigning for the presidency, Rodrigo Duterte told us: “Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the palace, I will do just what I did as mayor.”And that is exactly what he did when he took office, by unleashing a War on Drugs that has killed, according to his own administration’s 2017 Year-End Report, at least 20,322 men, women, and children—and counting. Once firmly ensconced in the Palace, he continued his tirade against human rights and human rights defenders with statements like:

• “One of these days, you human rights groups, I will investigate you. That’s the truth. For conspiracy.”

• “If it involves human rights, I don’t give a shit. I have to strike fear because the enemies of the state are out there to destroy children.”

• “The human rights (defenders) said I ordered the killings. I told them ‘OK. Let’s stop. We’ll let them (drug users) multiply so that when it’s harvest time, more people will die. I will include you (human rights defenders) because you are the reason why their numbers swell.”

He also banned a news organization from covering him because of what he called their “twisted” reporting, called for the abolition of the Commission on Human Rights, cursed United Nations human-rights rapporteurs and officials, and gave notice to the International Criminal Court that the Philippines was withdrawing from the Rome Statute.

Not content with his War on Drugs, he recently ordered a crackdown on “tambays” that has led to the warrantless arrest and detention of thousands and the killing of Genesis Agoncillo, mauled to death while in the custody of the police.

So I don’t have to tell you the state of civil and political rights and the rule of law under the present dispensation because it is obvious. There’s really no need to belabor the point. The sad reality is that the gains made by the human-rights movement from 1986 until 2016 have been all but wiped out. It appears that we have gone full circle. We find ourselves once again in a situation where human rights is a bad word and human-rights defenders are enemies of the State.

Why is this administration so antagonistic to human rights and the rule of law? Why is it blaming human-rights defenders for rampant crime when the reason why crime is so rampant has nothing to do with human rights and everything to do with our weak justice system – a system that has not delivered on its promise of bringing justice to the people? Instead of strengthening the justice system, why is this administration circumventing it by condoning if not encouraging “justice” from the barrels of guns instead of the gavels of judges?

Before I attempt to answer these questions I think it’s important that I address the notion that human rights and the rule of law don’t really matter because they are concepts that we imported from the West. I beg to vehemently disagree. Our language and our history show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we have a uniquely Filipino concept of justice. That our concept of justice is intimately connected with human rights. And that it is firmly rooted in fairness and equity.

In 1981, Ka Pepe Diokno observed that Tagalogs, Ilongos, Cebuanos, and Pampangos use the same word for “justice”: katarungan, derived from tarong, a Visayan word that means straight, upright, appropriate, correct. For us, therefore, justice means to act with rectitude, to do the morally right act.

Since justice, for us, means doing what is right or appropriate, it includes the concept of equity, for which we have no native word because it is already embedded in our concept of justice.

The word we use for “right”–karapatan–is derived from dapat, which means fitting, appropriate, correct. Justice and human rights, therefore, are intimately connected because they share the same meaning.

The English language is similar. Justice and right come from the same root word, ius. But katarungan is native to us, unlike the English term for justice, which is Latin in origin. Katarungan, moreover, embraces the concept of equity; the English word does not. Our concept of justice, therefore, is broader than the Western concept of justice.

How about “right” and “privilege”? While we have a native word for “right”— karapatan — we have none for “privilege” and instead use a Spanish derivative, pribilehiyo.

From this Ka Pepe concluded that “[t]he fundamental element in the Filipino concept of justice is fairness”; and that “privilege and naked power–two of the worst enemies of fairness–are alien to the Filipino mind.”

In summary, our language establishes:

• First, that we have our own distinctly Filipino concept of justice;

• Second, that it is “a highly moral concept, intimately related to the concept of right”;

• Third, that it is broader than the Western concept of justice, for it embraces equity;

• Fourth, that its fundamental element is fairness;

• And fifth, that it eschews privilege and naked power.

Not only our language, but also our history supports these conclusions. Our endless revolts against Spain, the wars we fought against the United States and the Japanese Occupation forces, and the crusade we mounted against a dictatorship can best be described, as Ka Pepe put it, “a continuous and continuing struggle to create a just society,” to attain self-determination, the collective aspect of human dignity.

To say that we imported the concept of human rights from the West ignores our language and our history, and insults our heroes who gave their lives so that we could live ours in freedom and dignity.

What I have said about human rights applies with equal force to the rule of law. “The rule of law,” according to Macquarie law professor Denise Meyerson, “is the opposite of the rule of power.” The rule of law is fairness in action. The rule of law is inherent in our concept of justice because the cornerstone of our concept of justice is fairness and equity.

Human rights and the rule of law are “two sides of the same principle, the freedom to live in dignity,” says the United Nations. The rule of law, it adds, “is the implementation mechanism for human rights, turning them from a principle into a reality.” The United Nations also says, “There is no rule of law…if human rights are not protected and vice versa; human rights cannot be protected…without a strong rule of law.”

Which brings me back to the questions I raised earlier: Why is this administration so antagonistic to human rights and the rule of law? Why is it blaming human rights defenders for rampant crime? Why is it condoning if not encouraging the use of guns to dispense justice instead of the gavels of judges?

I submit that the reason why this administration is so antagonistic to human rights and the rule of law is because human rights and the rule of law cannot co-exist with a government that operates on the rule of power.

I submit that the reason why this administration is blaming human-rights defenders for rampant crime is because it does not want us to realize that the only lasting solution to rampant crime is to strengthen our justice system, not short-circuit it.

I submit that the reason why this administration is condoning, if not encouraging, the use of guns to dispense justice is because, as Vaclav Havel once said, a government based on the rule of power thrives on fear and violence, seeks “to eliminate all expressions of non-conformity” and wants to consign our reason and conscience “to a higher authority.”

In a government based on the rule of power, the late Czech writer and statesman also said, “reality does not shape governance”. It is, he said, “governance that shapes reality,” that dictates what is true and what is not.

Our government tells us, for example, “there’s no such thing as EJK’s,” when we see poor people being killed left and right in the name of the War on Drugs.

Our government tells us, “no one is invading our territory,” when we see China taking over our seas and appropriating our fishermen’s catch as their own.

Our government tells us, “our legal system is working,” when we see a different kind of justice supplanting it, blasting from the barrels of guns.

Our government tells us, “we have a right to speak freely,” when we see those who criticize the administration attacked by trolls, shut down, or put in jail.

Our government tell us, “it’s all right to slut-shame women and put them down,” when we know in our hearts that it isn’t right to do that.

Our government is not only telling us these lies, it’s forcing us to pretend along with it – or as Havel put it, “to live within their lies.” Even if we don’t believe their lies, it’s enough that we accept our life under their regime. Because by doing so, we not only confirm the regime, we fulfill it. And in so doing, we embrace what Havel called the “world of appearances” that our government is foisting on us.

When Government wields power not so we may realize ourselves as human beings but to make us surrender our human identity in favor of the identity of the system, we are faced with a fundamental choice: to succumb to the system or stand up to it. To assert our rights or surrender them.

When Government forces its people to live within its lies, the only way to effectively oppose it is to live within the truth. Said Havel, once a dissident himself: “So long as living within the lie is not confronted with living within the truth, it will never be exposed.”

But he also said that when we live within the truth, we break through the façade of the system
and unmask the real nature of its power.

When we live within the truth, we expose the real problems that plague our society—problems that the regime has “hidden beneath a thick crust of lies”.

When we live within the truth, we reveal reality as it is, and allow others to see it as well.

When we live within the truth, we reclaim our inherent human dignity and self-worth.

That, said Havel, is the “singular, explosive and incalculable power” of living within the truth.

Some of us, despite the prevailing threats, fear, and violence, are already living within the truth:

• The young woman who stood, alone, in protest against the burial of a dictator in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

• The fisherfolk who, despite the pressure, revealed what is really happening in the West Philippine Sea.

• The bloggers who, despite of the vicious attacks by trolls, continue to tell it like it is.

• The journalists, who, despite the fear and the threats, continue to publish real stories about real people.

• The teachers, scientists, historians, and social scientists who, despite popular demand, practice independent scholarship and refuse to toe the government’s line.

• The human-rights defenders and relatives of victims who, at the risk of being victims of EJK’s themselves, continue to expose the arbitrary executions being done in the name of the War on Drugs and other gross violations of human rights.

Living within the truth under the harshest conditions is what made national heroes of Jose Rizal, Apolinario Mabini, and other courageous Filipinos.

When we live within the truth, we cast a powerful light that illuminates our surroundings and allows others to see the regime for what it really is.

This kind of illumination, said Havel, has “profound and incalculable consequences” – which explains why governments based on power “suppress the truth more severely than anything else.”

To live within the truth is to say, with conviction:

I do not believe in a political system that requires that I sacrifice my human identity in its name.

I do not believe in a political system that has no respect for human life and no regard for human dignity.

I do not believe in a political system that slut-shames women and treats them as lower beings.

I do not believe in a political system that stifles free expression and prevents human beings from developing to their full potential.

I do not believe in a political system that suppresses the truth and forces me to live within its lies.

All of us, at this very moment, can choose to live within the truth.

Havel wrote that “every free expression of life” — in literature, film, music, science, sports, education, photography, dance, or whatever it is you do – is an act of living within the truth.

Every assertion of our inherent human dignity, our longing for peace and harmony, and our desire for solidarity with others, is an act of living within the truth.

Every action that springs from our “authentic inner conviction,” Havel said, our innermost being, and our self-worth, is an act of living within the truth.

Every time we affirm our unique human identity, make use of our unique talents for others, and act “in the spirit of our own hierarchy of values,” we live within the truth.

Every time we lend a helping hand to those in need, to the weak, the vulnerable, and the oppressed, we live within the truth.

Every time we demand that justice be done and that the Constitution be respected, we live within the truth.

Living within the truth may not be easy. Living within the lies peddled by the government is much easier.

But which path will provide a lasting solution to our problems?

Which path will allow us to live, as Havel wrote, “freely in dignity and partnership”?

Which path will give us the space we need to bring our unique talents and abilities to full flower?

What is the truth about the society we live in? What do our people really desire from the bottom of their hearts?

While we may disagree on many things, there is one thing we all agree on, and long for: a just society run by a government whose officials are truly accountable to the people.

A society whose government officials are not corrupt and whose only interest is in serving the people.

A society whose government is capable of putting criminals behind bars and punishing them.

A society whose government respects human life and our inherent dignity as human beings, and which allows our people to bring their talents to full flower.

A society we can all be proud of.

That is a matter of vital importance that this administration is trying desperately to suppress by ramming its lies down our throats.

That is a matter of crucial significance that this administration is trying to conceal by using the barrel of the gun to dispense justice.

That is a matter of paramount concern that we must embrace if we truly want to see freedom and justice reign in our land. — Speech delivered at the PCIJ Forum on “Democracy & Governance in the Philippines: Deficit, Surplus, and Unfinished Business”, July 5, 2018, Pasig City, Metro Manila