Human rights are forever

On Saturday, December 10, we celebrate the 68th year anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a monumental document proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris in 1948, a recognition of the inalienable rights and inherent human dignity all members of the human race. The UDHR consists of 30 articles, which have been incorporated, in international treaties, economic transfers, national constitutions, and other laws, including our 1987 Constitution.

The Philippines, being an original member of the United Nations, participated in that historic occasion. Among others, we have consistently incorporated basic human rights in our Bill of Rights, progressively making this Article of our fundamental law stronger in every new iteration. We have not been perfect, of course. In the last Aquino government, we saw how Lumad leaders were hunted down, their communities uprooted and displaced, and schools closed down; supposedly in the name of anti-insurgency but really an attempt to control their natural resources by outsiders. Even a former President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was arbitrarily detained for nearly five years for weak cases that could not stand judicial inquiry. But those failures are nothing to what we saw in the Marcos martial law regime and nothing to what we are not witnessing in Duterte’s war against drugs.

In the 1987 Constitution, acknowledging our failure to implement human rights norms, we did create a Commission on Human Rights that is now at the forefront of holding the Duterte government accountable for its human rights excesses. I know personally CHR chairman Chito Gascon and his fellow commissioners Leah Armamento, Roberto Cadiz, Karen Dumpit, and Gwen Pimentel-Gana. They are courageous and resolute in the face of an antagonistic government; they are my heroes and we should support them unconditionally.

Aside from our domestic efforts, in the last 30 years, after we overthrew the Marcos dictatorship among others for its human rights excesses, our diplomacy has also constantly been pro-human rights. As recent as the 2015 Paris negotiations on climate change, we were seen as credible champions of the integration of human rights in to the international climate regime. Unfortunately, that has changed. Slowly but surely, we are becoming a pariah globally on human rights.

Contrary to the view that human rights is a western thing and that the oriental or developing country view is different, the UDHR emanated from the collective wisdom of all civilized nations as part of humanity and was not an imposition by the Western World. The rights recognized in the 1948 Declaration are all based on the predicate that a human being is endowed with faculties unique unto themselves and are not founded on lower life forms like animals. Intellect, reason and conscience are some attributes which other life forms do not possess. Utter disregard of this basic precept has resulted in “in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.” (preamble, UDHR).

The most fundamental and basic of human rights is the right to life. Under Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Philippines is a State Party, “every human being has the inherent right to life.” Article 6 of the ICCPR also says that the right to life “shall be protected by law” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” Extrajudicial killings and arbitrary executions are proscribed under this convention.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights defines “extralegal, arbitrary or summary executions” as the “deprivation of life without full judicial and legal process, and with the involvement, complicity, tolerance or acquiescence of the Government or its agents.” It further explains that extralegal, arbitrary or summary executions include “death through the excessive use of force by police or security forces.” According to the International Court of Justice, “where there are allegations that persons have been arbitrarily deprived of their life, involving a violation of the right to life, international law requires that there must be a prompt, independent and effective investigation into such allegations and that those responsible be brought to justice.”

Fortunately, under international law, victims are not without remedy, foremost of which are the International Criminal Court and the system of human rights rapporteurs and experts created by the United Nations. I write about the ICC below and reserve the rapporteur/expert system for another column.

The ICC is an international tribunal that has the jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. According to the Rome Statute that created the ICC, genocide are “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”; crimes against humanity are acts “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”; and war crimes are “acts of aggression” defined as “the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations.” Thus far, the ICC has conducted investigations into a number of cases that fall under its jurisdiction including, the indictment and conviction of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the prosecution of certain individuals in Central African Republic, Sudan, Kenya, Libya and Mali accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The spate of drug related extrajudicial killings—nearing 5,000 persons now, mostly poor and including some children - as a result of President Duterte’s war against drugs has once again people talking about the ICC. The International Commission of Jurists has written a letter to the President calling on him to unequivocally denounce extrajudicial killings, whether of alleged criminals or of any person in the Philippines. It also urged the Government of the Philippines to conduct prompt and impartial investigations into the police operations that resulted in these deaths. The chief prosecutor of the ICC has put on record that it is carefully watching events unfolding in the Philippines and promised to take action if warranted.

In response, through statements from President Duterte and Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, we have threatened to leave the Court. To do so would be a big blow to our diplomacy because we have been in recent years one of the major champions of the ICC and have successfully campaigned for the election of two of its Judges – Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago (who was not able to sit at the Hague because of illness) and Dean Raul Pangalangan who is now ably serving in the court. Justice Pangalangan is in The Hague in his individual capacity but he does the country proud with the work he does there.

I hope our decision-makers realize the irreparable long-term damage it would cause to our country’s reputation if we left the ICC. They should realize that they will not be in their positions forever and they have to worry about the country also and not just themselves.

Respect for human rights is not a passing or seasonal fashion. Human rights are not relative. Human rights are absolute and must forever be respected.

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Topics: Tony La Viña , Human rights , Universal Declaration of Human Rights , United Nations General Assembly , 1987 Constitution
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