Philippine Human Rights struggles and challenges in the 21st century

A privilege speech delivered by Rep. Barry on 16 December 2013
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Mr. Speaker, I rise today to discuss an issue that speaks to us all—the issue of human rights, dignity, and freedom.

Last week, December 10, marked the celebration of the International Human Rights Day, a worldwide commemoration and reaffirmation of the United Nations’ commitment to uphold and protect the principles and rights that are inalienable to all people from all nations and from all walks of life. It also fell on the 65th by the UN General Assembly of the seminal document on human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

More than just a celebration, that day provided us the opportunity to look back, evaluate,and reaffirm our commitment to recognize and make real these principles that uphold the inherent dignity and worth of every person, in every community, in every nation on the planet.

As I earlier mentioned, it has been 65 years since the members of the United Nations came together and proclaimed that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” (Article I, UDHR) a historical and compelling statement made in the aftermath of the horror and inhumanity of the Second World War. Out of that harrowing experience, the nations of the world came together to once and for all declare that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms… without distinction of any kind such as race, color, sex, language, religion,political or other opinion, nationality or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Since then, the UDHR has been considered as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,” all over the world.

The Philippines was one of 48 countries that signed the 1948 Declaration, and since then we have been one of the world’s leading countries in the formal and legal recognition and articulation of human rights principles. In 1951, within three years from the adoption of the UDHR, the Philippine Supreme Court was one of the first courts in the world to recognize and apply the rights under the Declaration to resolve an actual case (Meijoff v. Director of Prisons). At present, the Philippines is currently a signatory of virtually all major human rights covenants with a few notable exceptions like the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Our country’s experience with human rights, however, has not, unfortunately, been one long tale of articulation and achievement. We went through the dark period of Martial Law, where all our lofty declarations fell to naught in the face of massive levels of State-led and State-sponsored human rights violations. And even with the restoration of formal democratic institutions in 1986, and the adoption of our current Constitution in 1987 – a document widely hailed as a “human rights constitution” for its groundbreaking institutionalization of human rights principles in fundamental law – our government’s human rights record has been far from spotless.

In the 26 years since People Power allowed us to adopt our “human rights constitution,” human rights violations have continued to take place, despite the sincere and valiant efforts of government institutions and one of the world’s most active and dynamic non-government human rights communities to eliminate abuses and create safeguards to individual rights and freedoms. Widespread poverty, environmental degradation, impunity, and corruption are glaring testaments to our communal failure.

Today we have to recapture our commitment to enforce human rights, by redefining our agenda, approach and strategy in dealing with the human rights issues of our times. One that does not merely pay lip service to our international pledges but one that is grounded and mindful of the existing socio-economic conditions and political realities, and guided by international norms and standards.

During the waning years of the previous Administration, a comprehensive approach to human rights as encapsulated into a single plan was crafted but unfortunately not adopted before the end of the Presidential term. This was a time when the Philippines was reeling from criticism on both the domestic and international front for its human rights record – with pervasive extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, crackdowns on basic civil rights such as the freedom of speech, of the press, and assembly, and widespread hunger, poverty, and homelessness.

The human rights situation was bleak and discouraging at the time. The dismal state of the human rights situation then cannot be illustrated more vividly than by reference to the ill-fated 23rd day of November in 2009 that shocked the country and the world. That day, 57 people, most of whom were journalists, were massacred, butchered in broad daylight and buried in a mass grave. It was a horrifying mass killing carried out to stifle electoral democracy; one, which we now know as the Maguindanao Massacre. Four years since then, justice remains elusive for the families of the victims. Half of the 197 persons accused of the crime remain at large, while the prosecution of the rest drags on through year after year of interminable delays.

If we are to take this as a test of our government’s response to an urgent human rights concern, then the results are far from encouraging. The advent of President Aquino’s Administration in 2010 was a hopeful time for the Philippine human rights community. His platform was, in fact, described by some quarters as people-centered and rights-based, a welcome approach in the wake of the dismal record of the previous government. A few months after he assumed office, in a speech delivered during the 62nd anniversary of the UDHR, the President promised that his administration will make “certain that these commitments to treaties will not remain paper promises and that his
government is indeed serious about human rights.”

Admittedly, there were tremendous expectations from the Aquino Administration as far as the issue of human rights was concerned. These ranged from the immediate – such as successfully pursuing prosecutions against the most notorious human rights violators, clamping down on extra-judicial killings, and addressing a growing atmosphere of impunity, to the more institutional – such as integrating the human rights framework into all aspects of government policy-making, passing key human rights legislation, and acceding to international treaties such as the Rome Statute.

One very basic expectation was the long delayed adoption of the aforementioned National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP), which was intended as the concretization of the effort to mainstream human rights in policies and programs of the government. This document stipulated the promotion and protection of individual rights, as guided by the UDHR and the eight principal international treaties on human rights that the Philippines is already party to. Various government agencies and public sector groups were identified to help realize the intention of the plan.

Three years after the President’s inspiring 62nd Human Rights Day Speech, however, the NHRAP still languishes in limbo, with no indications as to when it will be formally adopted. Sadly, this is just one of many disappointments with respect to human rights. The human
rights situation remains a major concern in the Philippines.

As reported by Amnesty International published in May of this year:

Human rights defenders and journalists were at risk of unlawful killings, and thousands of cases of grave human rights violations remained unresolved. Victims of human rights violations, including during martial law from 1972 to 1981, continued to be denied justice, truth and reparations.

In April, the Philippines acceded to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, but has yet to establish the required mechanism to monitor treatment of detainees.

And according to a 2013 report of Human Rights Watch:

The Aquino administration has failed to keep its commitment to hold those responsible for extrajudicial killings to account. Since 2001, hundreds of leftist activists, journalists, environmentalists, and clergy have been killed by alleged members of the security forces. Local human rights organizations reported approximately 114 cases of extrajudicial killings since Aquino came to office, and 13 at this writing. Despite strong evidence that military personnel have been involved, investigations have stalled. No one was convicted for political killings in 2012.

And while, admittedly, there have been gains made in some areas, it is apparent that much remains to be done. And in particular, a more focused, organized, and determined effort must be undertaken to include human rights as one of government’s priorities.

Fortunately, there is still time. But this Administration, and we, its partners in Congress, must act now.

In our long and storied journey as a nation since 1948, we have undergone a wide range of experiences in human rights advocacy, policy, and practice – some stirring triumphs, others shameful setbacks. These experiences need to be harnessed, studied and evaluated because they offer us the opportunity and wisdom to improve our institutions and policies to prevent a repeat in history. Unless questions are settled, missteps are acknowledged, and culprits and perpetrators are punished, any headway in the achieving true of equality, freedom and justice will be minimal. If unresolved, our past will forever hang like a dark cloud above us, ready to ruin our vision of a future of rights, freedom and dignity.

The apparent ‘disconnect’ between the commitment and performance of the government in the arena of human rights is attributed to varying factors. Weak implementation, bad management or flimsy follow-through ensures a policy’s failure. On the other hand, the lack of appropriate and responsive policy to buttress a commitment is a failure from the start. Failure to implement is one thing. But, failure to have a clear plan to begin with is failure by default.

At this juncture, we need to remind ourselves of our commitment to uphold and promote human rights. We cannot just write the laws and then hope for the best. The entire Philippine electorate expects more than that. It is our mandate, as part of the government, to ensure that protection of human rights comes full circle. We need to engage the other branches of government to ensure each one the protection of his/her freedom and dignity.

People, especially those from the marginalized and vulnerable sectors whose basic rights are denied or abused, deserve so much better from the law. The people we serve deserve no less.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and good afternoon.

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Towards an HIV/AIDS-free society

Privilege speech Rep. Barry delivered yesterday, 2 December 2013, at the House of Representatives.

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak before this House, to both commemorate and call to action.

Yesterday, December 1, marked the 25th year of the observance of World AIDS Day.

I know many of our colleagues may wonder, why talk about HIV/AIDS now, when so many other concerns, some perhaps more urgent or compelling, face our nation and this Congress? In the face of issues concerning PDAF – or the absence thereof, post-Yolanda reconstruction, climate change policy, and the continuing campaign against poverty, it is tempting to brush aside the issue of HIV/AIDS and to consider it as “not a priority.”

But it is precisely this attitude of relative indifference that has brought us to the alarming juncture where we are today, where 25 years after the global community has declared an all-out campaign to combat HIV/AIDS and 15 years after we enacted our own AIDS prevention law, the increase in reported cases of HIV/AIDS has hit terrifying figures – 4,072 new cases since January of this year, 491 cases in October alone, out of the 15,774 total cases reported since 1984. That means 25.8% of all HIV/AIDS cases in the last three decades were reported in the first ten months of this year.

I therefore rise this afternoon not only to join the rest of the world in commemorating World AIDS Day but also to talk about some of the urgent issues related to HIV/AIDS that I believe we must take up.

This time presents us with the opportunity to examine our substantial progress in the battle against the HIV and AIDS pandemic and to reaffirm our commitment to achieving an HIV/AIDS-free society. We also remember those we have lost, encourage those who continue to suffer, and lend support to their family and friends who, in many cases unfortunately, continue to bear the unfair and misguided discrimination of society.

The year 1998 marked the beginning of our country’s declaration of war against the disease with the passage of RA 8504, also known as, The Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998, a national comprehensive plan of preventing the spread of the disease within the populace. It outlined the necessary tools and strategy needed by the government to prevent the occurrence of new infections, control its transmissions, make available the necessary care and treatment to the victims and protect the rights of the HIV/AIDS victims and key populations at higher risk to the infection. A coordinated national response against the disease was also established through the creation of the Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC).

In the 15 years since the enactment of the AIDS law, government worked to elevate the nation’s awareness of the disease, supported studies that aimed to reduce its transmission, and built ties with various NGOs, community groups, and international agencies to help curb the increasing trend of infections. The 1998 AIDS Law intended to curb and stabilize the spread of HIV and AIDS in the country was, in fact, hailed as “best practice” by the international community.

In addition, as signatory to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (UNMDG), we made a commitment to halt the spread of HIV infection and to begin reducing its incidence in the country by 2015.

In the global arena, UNAIDS reports show that 95% out of 186 countries are on track with their MDG on HIV/AIDS. This marked a pivotal juncture in the worldwide effort of curbing and halting the spread of the disease. There has been a downward global trend in new cases of HIV/AIDS victims at the turn of the millennium, as 77 countries had either stabilized or reduced HIV infections within their territories—an indicator that the world may soon make the zero-infections, zero-deaths and zero-discrimination UN political declaration on HIV/AIDS an achievable reality.

These positive developments in the global arena, unfortunately, are not reflective of the current state of affairs in our country. Despite the 1998 law, and the efforts undertaken in pursuit of its goals, a triumph against HIV/AIDS is not yet within sight, as number of new HIV infections continue to expand rapidly. When the AIDS bill was enacted in 1998, HIV/AIDS victims were numbered at 189. This figure was more than doubled by 2008 as recorded cases reached a total of 528. By 2012, HIV/AIDS reached a staggering total of 3,338 cases.

Prior to 2008, HIV prevalence in the Philippines was considered “low and slow”, with only one new HIV infection being reported per day. Five years after, the tide has completely turned. HIV prevalence has now become “fast and furious”. In August of this year, reported new HIV cases increased to 16 per day, or 1 new case per 1.5 hour. This means that by the time this assemblage is adjourned at 7PM, there will be 13 new reported cases of HIV infection, with 2 new cases being reported as we conduct this session.

The radical upward surge on the HIV/AIDS situation in the country, thus, requires that we bring this issue to the forefront of the Congressional agenda.

Accomplishing the goal of an AIDS-free society requires us to reconfigure our knowledge and understanding of the subject, scrutinize the emerging trends and developing dynamics within the population afflicted with HIV/AIDS and craft an up-to-date effective prevention and control response which takes into account the experiences of the last 15 years.

As I mentioned earlier, within this year alone, a total of 4,072 HIV/AIDS cases were already recorded. This is 40% higher compared to last year’s figure of the same period and a thousandfold increase since the enactment of the AIDS law. Health experts have explained that the massive jump of infections is due to low use of condoms, multiple sexual partnerships among key populations at higher risk to infections, and unregulated sharing of needles among people with injecting drugs (PWID). Unprotected sex, in particular, doubles a person’s likelihood of contracting HIV and unregulated needle-sharing has become a major cause of transmission for the disease.

A closer look on the epidemic situation in the country reveals shifting trends and changing dynamics in the demographics of people affected by the disease. Out of the recorded four thousand plus HIV/AIDS cases this year, a hugely disproportionate distribution was apparent, in terms of geographic, gender and age. A huge concentration of the victims now are the young generation, belonging to the 20-29 year age bracket, predominantly male (95% of the total cases) and they are found mostly in NCR, Region 7 and 4A (Manila, Davao and Angeles, Pampanga). HIV prevalence within these regions are pegged at 5% or higher—surpassing the HIV prevalence within the general population. They are now flagged as priority areas that are in dire need of focused intervention on prevention, treatment, care and protection. Manila, for one, is of particular concern as it accounts for more than 50% of the total number of new HIV cases recorded this year.

Although sexual contact remains the dominant mode of virus-transmission, its main drivers have now changed faces. Prior to the turn of the millennium, females were considered the main drivers of the disease: specifically, those engaged in sex trade. Recent studies made by the Department of Health and various other international agencies reveal, however, that males having sex with other males (MSMs) now predominate. They comprise 80% of the total number of HIV cases in the country.

According to government epidemiologists, if nothing is done to address and reverse the existing conditions, HIV cases are projected at an all-time high of 45,000 by 2015. This bleak prediction should urge us to step up our game and meet the demands of the developing dynamics and changing conditions that continue to encourage the spread of the disease.

The fact that the disease afflicts less than one percent (<1%) of the general population should not deter us. We should not let the number fool us into treating this issue with a great degree of political comfort and complacency. Instead, this should challenge us to take firm actions to prevent the disease from becoming a full blown pandemic, as has happened in many countries. Prevention is better than cure, but for diseases such as HIV and AIDS that has irreversible infections and with no discovered cure, prevention is the cure.

The government has made progresses in areas such as: providing wider access to anti-retroviral treatment (ART), a treatment used to slow down the progress of HIV in the body to victims and the highly at-risk population; investments were placed on research aimed at reducing the spread of the disease; and, leveling up of the peoples’ knowledge of the disease were undertaken. The manner of discourse, however, is largely saddled by our country’s traditional values and culture. These considerations continue to prevent an open debate and discussion of the issue in the public arena, thus, limiting peoples’ understanding of the issue.

The continuing stigma and discrimination against HIV/AIDS victims and their family has also greatly hampered the achievement of a future that is AIDS-free. The shame, guilt, fear of alienation, discrimination and other perverse repercussions that come along with being identified with the disease pushes victims to hide their conditions, not seek treatment or disclose their status to their partners—thereby, increasing the likelihood of the spread of the disease.

I remember reading a news report back in 2010 about Rolly (not his real name), a person living with HIV, who worked as a dancer in a bar. In the article, he recounted the painful ordeal he encountered due to his condition. He related how, at his workplace, people living with HIV/AIDS like him were locked inside a room and those who served them food would kick it under the door. They were treated like outcasts. For people like them, discrimination and stigma is a harsh reality they have to live on every day. Another report published in 2008 told of the horrific experience by a family in Olongapo, who, after it was discovered that one of their family members was HIV positive, woke up to find a their house on fire. It was later found out that their neighbors, afraid of possibly catching the virus carried by their family member, colluded to torch their tiny hut.

Faced with an impending death, a hostile and discriminating society, it seems the story of ‘Rolly’ aptly describes the experience of living with AIDS—that the discrimination from the society against HIV/AIDS victims can be much more painful and fatal more than the virus itself.

We have made significant progress in other areas of our development goals. This time, let us channel this nation’s creativity in the serious fight against HIV/AIDS making good of our commitment in eliminating HIV/AIDS in our society. Let us ensure that no infections occur due to lack of information, or worse, misinformation, no death due to lack of treatment and no discrimination due to lack of understanding and compassion.

The nation must be equipped with the necessary information that will guide them to stay healthy and avoid the infection. Enough funding should be made available to aid the health sector provide the necessary quality and accessible prevention, treatment, care and support services to people living with HIV/AIDS and to those who are highly at-risk of contracting the virus.

It is time to open the debate and discussion of the issue in the public arena. There is a need to break the myths and misconceptions that surround the disease, which, consequently, breed stigma and discrimination from the society.

That is why, earlier today, I, with two other members of this distinguished House, the Honorable Teddy Brawner Baguilat of the Lone District of Ifugao, and the Honorable Lani Mercado-Revilla of the 2nd District of Cavite, did our small part in attempting to lift the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS by undergoing voluntary HIV testing at the free clinic currently set up at the House of Representatives medical building. The clinic will be open for three days, and I urge all of you, my esteemed colleagues, to take the test, if only to show to our constituents and fellow Filipinos that there is nothing to fear, or to be ashamed of, insofar as these crucial preventive practices relating to HIV/AIDS are concerned.

The issue of HIV and AIDS is one that is not, and will never be, an exclusive topic that is reserved for the victims, their families and their friends. It is our issue too, as a nation and as a country striving for inclusive economic growth and development. It is our moral obligation and common mission to ensure that, in our journey toward progress, no one is left behind — not the poor, not the sick, not the old, not the weak. We should not let anyone fall between the gaps and inadequacies that characterize several of our laws and institutions. And to be willing and ready to lend a hand those who do.

I hope, my dear colleagues, that we will take up this challenge.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and good afternoon.