Yesterday was International Human Rights Day, an event that the Philippines observed along with many other countries.
But perhaps not many know that on top of this celebration, a specific Philippine law mandates that the country devote some time each year to appreciating the concept of human rights. Republic Act No 9201 marks out December 4-10 as National Human Rights Consciousness Week, “to make the people aware of their basic human rights … and to propagate, particularly among the students, a human rights culture that aims at sustainable development in the country”.
The Philippines is also a signatory to a clutch of international legal declarations that not only recognise human rights but also hold each signatory country to a commitment to respect and defend these rights in its domain – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, all under the auspices of the United Nations.
And then there is, of course, the 1987 Philippine Constitution — framed as a bulwark against any repeat of the Marcos dictatorship, the rapacity of which led to unprecedented human rights abuses. The Bill of Rights begins with that ringing one-two punch for the Filipino citizen’s fundamental right to live with freedom and dignity: “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws,” it says.
These declarations are crystal-clear, and have the force and effect of law. How has it come to pass, then, that the Philippines these days appears to be a country unrecognisable in the scale and extent of the assault on its human rights infrastructure?
The numbers paint a grim picture: Some 5,800 unresolved extrajudicial killings so far, according to police records – the victims not only slaughtered with impunity, but often also tarred beyond death via a crude cardboard sign alleging their involvement in illegal drugs. About 2,000 have been shot and killed by police allegedly because they resisted arrest.
In a study by the independent news agency Reuters, covering 51 cases of drug-related shootings, the cops notched a record of 100 killed suspects and three wounded – an astonishing kill rate of 97 per cent. “The figures pose a powerful challenge to the official narrative that the Philippine police are only killing drug suspects in self-defence,” it said.
Every morning, the country wakes up to gruesome photographs of corpses in the streets – but life must go on, and so it does, as people become inured to the violence. In a rare case of the gunmen being apprehended, they turned out to be uniformed policemen moonlighting as vigilantes.
Congress, eager to please a President who has made ruthlessness the hallmark of his governance, is working to criminalise children as young as nine. It’s also about to reimpose the death penalty, in an environment in which the vast majority of those disadvantaged by the justice system – let alone by the wave of summary killings that have targeted only the smallest fry of the drug trade – come from the poorest, most powerless sectors of the population.
President Rodrigo Duterte can change this toxic atmosphere with just a word or two affirming his strong commitment to human rights and due process. Lamentably, he continues to be hostile to what he sees as impediments to his war on drugs and criminality, recently even saying he would kill human rights workers along with drug addicts and criminals (a remark his underlings predictably had to reinterpret in a positive light, if that were at all possible, the next day).
This day should serve as a reminder that human rights in the country are under seemingly methodical attack. Outrage, not apathy, should be the response to any attempt to demean and erode the people’s hard-won freedoms.