A privilege speech delivered by Rep. Barry on 16 December 2013
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.