Needed: Collective voice of the people

By Val G. Abelgas

LAST SUNDAY, as the world commemorated International Human Rights Day, Filipinos could as well be mourning the death of human rights in the Philippines. It started dying when the first suspected drug user was gunned down by trigger-happy policemen on the pretext that the victim fought back with a gun conveniently placed beside the body as President Rodrigo Duterte launched his bloody and brutal drug war in the first days of his presidency in July 2016.

As deaths mounted on the country’s streets, the new President spurned criticism from all over the world with this brash statement: “I don’t care about human rights, believe me.” Duterte argued that the situation in the country was not merely a crisis; rather, it is a war. He invoked the “articles of war” and said that “human rights cannot be used as a shield or an excuse to destroy the country.”

He reiterated his disdain for human rights again last week, telling human rights activists “in or out of the Philippines” that their complaints “would just fall on deaf ears.”

There you have it: The President himself saying that he did not care about human rights. After all, he and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre III, the man tasked with ensuring that the rule of law prevails and that every Filipino would get his day in court, had repeatedly said that drug users were not part of humanity and were, therefore, not entitled to human rights.

The President was basically telling us that the rights of these drug users do not compare to the rights of their supposed victims and would-be victims, an argument that is based on the presumption that all drug users are criminals and a threat to Philippine society that Duterte claims has attained the status of a narco-politico state, whatever he meant by that.

If his argument were true, how come only the bodies of the poor have been left lying on the alleys and gutters of the country’s slums? How come we haven’t heard of wealthy men using the more brain-damaging heroin and cocaine being arrested in an “Operation Tokhang” raids and left lifeless and bloodied on the plush villages’ well-paved roads?

In its one-track mission to rid the country of shabu users, the Duterte administration is actually sending the wrong message to the country’s youth, the sector he claims he wants to protect with his war on drugs, that the rule of law and the right of the people to due process and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty can be sacrificed in the altar of supposed peace and order. And that murder is a rightful weapon to attain a drug-free society.

And yet after thousands of alleged drug users have been killed in the brutal drug war, two Supreme Court justices wondered why the number of drug users have more than doubled according to government statistics — from 1.5 million at end of 2015 to 4.7 million at the end of last year.

Senior Associate Justices Antonio Carpio and Marvic Leonen also wondered why there has been a crime wave as shown by the thousands left dead on the streets since the drug war was launched.

“But with the 4,000 murders for a period of one year, don’t you think that this is something we should worry about, regardless of who these people were?” Leonen said. “The police, of course, might be investigating them, but it worries, of course, that there is such a break(down) in law and order.”

Amid all these unsolved extrajudicial killings, Duterte defended the perpetrators, saying he would not allow security personnel performing their duty to go to jail. “For those really good in our society, they always have my protection including the police, military. As long as they work, I would never allow them to go to jail just because there was an error of judgment,” the President said.  

His repeated defense of the police has only emboldened policemen to pursue their deadly mission to eliminate alleged drug users, even minors and children who were reported begging for mercy before being shot dead. After all, the commander-in-chief has assured them many times over that any complains against their human rights violations would only fall on deaf ears and that they would never go to jail for as long as he is president.

Just as troubling as Duterte’s defense of his deadly drug war and defense of policemen involved in his war is the hypocrisy of politicians who we expected to be on the side of the righteous, men such as Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque and Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano.

Roque, a former human rights lawyer and a strong human rights advocate as a party-list congressman, has ardently defended Duterte’s human rights record and even threatened that the country would pull out of the International Criminal Court if it tried President Duterte and other government officials without observing what he called the principle of complementarity, which states that it will only exercise jurisdiction if the state party of the accused is “unable or unwilling” to prosecute the crime. But then under the current climate of impunity where even judges and lawyers are murdered, what prosecutor or judge would dare indict or try the government leaders?

Cayetano, who had a respectable and commendable stint as senator, has repeatedly defended Duterte’s human rights record. He said last week that the promotion and protection of human rights should not be politicized but it is essential that the country continues to work to make human rights central to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agenda.

“The Philippines has always been at the forefront of and will continue pushing for strengthening a rights-based approach in the ASEAN,” he said. Yeah, right.

On the days leading to the International Human Rights Day, the world made it known that it did not agree with the statements of Roque and Cayetano nor does it condone human rights violations in the country.

Early last month, Liberal International (LI) gave its “highest human rights honor” to detained Sen. Leila de Lima, whom the organization described as a “political prisoner” and a critic of “authoritarian” President Duterte.

Later, for the second year in a row, the influential Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine named De Lima as one of its Leading Global Thinkers for 2017, citing her “unfettered criticism” of President Duterte and his brutal war on drugs.

Earlier, TIME Magazine named both Duterte and De Lima in its 100 Most Influential People 2017 list. Duterte was listed among “leaders” while the senator was included in the “icons” category. But while the write-up on Duterte was mostly a rebuke of his brutal war on illegal drugs, De Lima was portrayed as a figure of resistance against a “strongman” rule.

But did the rebuke matter to Duterte? Obviously, not. After all, he had said that he doesn’t care about human rights and that any complaint regarding this matter would fall on deaf ears. It will take the collective voice of the people before he would finally listen, if at all.