(Keynote Speech of Commission on Human Rights Chairperson Leila de Lima)


On the Occasion of the Alternative Law Groups 20th Anniversary Forum

Plaza Ibarra, Quezon City
10 December 2009

delivered by

Chairperson, Commission on Human Rights

Good evening.
On a morning twenty years ago today, on a date which the world now celebrates as International Human Rights Day, residents of Metro Manila woke up to the aftermath of what had been described as the most serious coup d’etat staged against the Philippine Government. The newly-resurrected Philippine democracy was infantile, only on its third year since the end of a dictatorship remembered for its infamy.

For the period of December 1st until the 9th of 1989, it was not just the administration that had just been put through the test, it was not just the late President Aquino whose head had been the target to be placed on a silver platter offered to right-wing militarists, and it was not just Metro Manila, the political and economic capital of the country that had been placed in danger  it was our democracy that stood on the balance, ready to be pushed off the scales altogether.

December 9, 1989, the rebel group had been defeated resoundingly, but not after what seemed to be a swift victory over a shaky loyalist defense. December 10, 1989, the wafting, acrimonious smoke in the air finally cleared. Our democracy had not only survived its own traumatic birth and, thereafter, a harrowing series of attempts to topple it from its revolutionary foundations, but also, as Manilenos would find, that on this day in 1989, it had yet again survived the greatest, bloodiest and most ferocious coup d’etat.

Twenty years forward to today, some armchair pundits now say that we are in the midsts of some revival or reaffirmation of our democracy and human rights. Some say that the human rights are of undeniable national attention because, and I mean no immodesty, the Commission on Human Rights is always in the media and public eye. As your invitation letter suggests, and I quote, [my] work as the Chairperson of the CHR personifies the principles that have guided the work of the ALG in the past two decades.

The truth, however, is not as brow-raising as it has been suggested. Our democracy and human rights, inseparable from one another, have not enjoyed an overnight rebirth. In the past two decades, they had been alive, perhaps at times dysfunctional, at other times gravely ill, but assuredly alive. The rebirth was in 1986. The proof of life was not only apparent in December 1989, but time and time again over the years, in the face of every conceivable human rights challenge to afflict our country. The principles that the CHR stands for now are the same principles galvanized in fundamental, organic law drafted and affirmed by the people over two decades ago. And while our democracy and its foundations built on human rights have not existed in the most ideal of conditions throughout all these years, it is very capable of indubitable demonstration  that it is still very much alive, with a beating, throbbing heart that is as agitated as it was over two decades ago. The evidence of this is, and has always been, in the people.

Everywhere, observers have long-recognized the strength of our people, manifested in the breadth of a vibrant civil society. Just as millions of foreign-currency remitting overseas Filipinos keep the Philippine economy from a disastrous economic collapse, an ever-vigilant civil society has kept the country from an equally disastrous political and social implosion. The Alternative Law Groups, as one of hundreds of civil society groups which exert every humanly possible effort to ingrain the promise of our democracy in the hearts of millions of Filipinos, is what sustains our jealous freedom, our democratic way of life, and our cherished human rights.

Today, we gather not only to celebrate the longevity of the ALG. We celebrate the longevity and timelessness of the principles of human rights, furthered by you and the rest of civil society. We celebrate your shared vision of a Philippine society that is just, humane, sovereign, democratic and peaceful where there is equitable distribution of resources and opportunities, gender equality and sustainable development.

Indeed, it is not my work that personifies the guiding principles. Through the work of the ALG, all of you have long personified our democracy and human rights. It had been stated time and again that the CHR, as an independent Constitutional human rights commission, cannot fully function without the prerequisite strength and vibrancy of our partners in civil society such as the ALG. Before any congratulations to the ALG, I tender to you, in behalf of the entire CHR, my deepest appreciation and admiration. Truly, it is by the work of persons such as yourselves, that we know democracy and human rights are very much alive in our country.

Twenty years forward, our democracy had grown up with our children, many of whom are now of college age or new entrants into the workforce. They are of a generation that may not have a retrievable memory of the turmoil of the 1980s, but they certainly enjoy the freedom that cost the lives of so many Filipinos prior.

So many ask what it is that we can do to promote democracy and human rights. Not everyone serves directly in the cause for human rights. Not everyone has devoted their lives and their toil to human rights. Not everyone has had a dictatorship to overthrow, foreign bases to expel, corrupt presidents to impeach or wars with secessionists to oppose.

Then come blights so disturbing  the great flood of Luzon, the massive displacement of people, the Maguindanao Massacre and the latest and most suspicious incarnation of Martial Law. These human rights disasters of 2009 remind us all that not only are there profound threats to our democracy and human rights that detonate in the public eye, but that there are a host of other threats that are more insidious, more latent, less a crisis than an undertow that precede human rights catastrophes. The ghastly Maguindanao Massacre, the taboo and sinister declaration of Martial Law and the lamentable yet predictable floods brought about by Typhoon Ondoy  all these have a long set of precursor human rights violations that paved the way for these tremendously disconcerting events.

In twenty years, we have had our fair share of spectacular human rights obloquy. What we have had too much of is the constant, stalking threat of erosion of our human rights. What is it then that Filipinos, from all walks of life, can do for human rights? More relevantly, how do we move human rights forward with that 20-20 clarity of vision, as the theme of our celebration suggests?

In the face of such stupendous human rights calamities that we are experiencing now, there are two points that I wish to raise this afternoon which answer these questions first, we need a firm historical grounding in human rights and, second, we need to re-examine our people’s capacity to not only to sustain our democracy and human rights, but their capacity to deliver profound change.

On the first point, as our democracy ages, and the years leaf their way to decades, we face the danger of losing the lessons of our constant struggle for freedom. Every election year, pundits always make the remark about the frailty of the Filipino memory and that inevitably, we get what we vote for. But the frailty of our collective memory is not limited to the exercise of suffrage. It is systemic and it affects a vast range of issues, fashioned in such a way that our institutions reflect a frailty of memory as well, an inability to build upon better practices prior, and a weakness in upholding and enforcing the rule of law. The question haunts us at every election year because the onus is on the people, when electing another government, to remember what truly matters when it comes to our democracy.

The problem of passing time is none so evident as in the predicament of our burgeoning youth sector, as illustrated by the recent declaration of Martial Law in Maguindanao. The oldest of the youth sector were only 3 years old at the end of the Marcos-era Martial Law scenario. They were 1st graders at the time of the revolution. And the rest of the youth have no memory of it at all. How should the youth come to terms with a new threat to freedom, democracy and human rights in the form of Martial Law, when they had lived through years where State-sponsored impunity was rampant? What lesson can they lift from their history books and juxtapose seamlessly unto the current state of affairs, without any contradiction, without any confusion?

As with organizations with substantial institutional memory, like the 20 year old ALG, the challenge is not only to remember all the human rights events that had unfolded in the decades past. It is not sufficient to remember our analysis of history at the time we were caught in the flux of it. We must re-visit the old lessons with fresh eyes, to better understand how similar but different our current state of affairs are with the past, so that the measures we had then undertaken to overcome past human rights afflictions can be re-tooled to understand and overcome what we face now.

After all, retrospect is indeed, 20-20.

Martial Law in 2009 is, arguably, different from the 1972 brand. The people are different. It is an old nemesis, but it has taken a new form. The election-related violence on November 23, 2009, while unparalleled in its vileness, is of the same thread as the violence we’ve witnessed in every election we’ve ever had. It is equally abominable, regardless of the numbers killed, but it is different. All other human rights issues seem familiar, from extrajudicial killings, to torture, to displacement, to poverty. They are all similar to what our country had experienced in another time, but they are different.

And it is in appreciating these subtle differences, which characterize familiar problems, that opens the gates and catapults us forward towards solutions which should be equally different, and hopefully more effective.

How then do we move forward with a clear vision? We must see differently, to do differently. Then, we can say we have moved forward.

The second point, which is the people’s power and capacity to enact change, begins with remembering our historical struggle for human rights. Then it branches off to seeing differently, before anyone can expect anyone else to do differently.

A very important function of legal advocates for human rights, more than free legal assistance to the marginalized, is the ability to educate the people  to educate the marginalized in their rights, the basis in law, the procedures they must abide by and the remedies they may invoke. Moreover, it is groups such as yours that possess the capacity to shape public policy, by educating policy-makers, legislators, whether on the national or local level, whether they serve in branches of government, in agencies or instrumentalities. It is in educating the people, as citizens or as public servants, that we find hope for clear vision in understanding past human rights issues and better addressing new ones as well.

As I had mentioned earlier, an informed population has not only the power to sustain our freedom, democracy and human rights, but also the capacity to deliver profound change. With the ever-present threats to our human rights, we must be able to teach the people to recognize even the most subtle threats, to be indignant not only over the most sensational issues, and to transition indignation into sustained action that finally induces change.

There is strength in numbers, as the adage goes. Where the work of civil society and all partners in human rights protection and promotion are directed towards mobilizing not just our own ranks, but everyone, every person, we exponentially increase the efficacy of our people’s capacity to induce change.

When people, of any demographic, background or profession, ask what they can do, sometimes the simplest, most parsimonious answer suffices – respect life. It is from the right to life that all, and I mean all, rights are derived. The city we live in reflects how much or how little we value the right to life and all derivative rights. Where we do not provide sidewalks and allow pedestrians to walk on the edge of the road, or ambulant vendors and children selling sampaguita are allowed to loiter in traffic, all at the risk of being sideswiped, this is a damning reflection of our own collective neglect of the right to life. For something so ordinary to be ignored, how do we expect many people to even care about other people summarily executed, abducted or tortured?

Where we cannot even care for the safety of persons, how can we expect to care about other issues like littering or traffic rules, the environment or climate change, corruption and public accountability? When sensationalized issues move the public into action, like the Maguindanao Massacre, how can we expect them to sustain indignation and clamor, when so many ordinary issues are consistently ignored?

The change to seeing differently rests heavily on being able to first see the human rights issues. Strength is function of numbers, as is change a function of the number of people willing to bring about change. But willingness is preceded by awareness of human rights issues, and therefore, the way forward is equip people first with the ability to see the issues. When we have ensured awareness, even of the smallest of concerns, then we can hope for incremental solutions from ordinary people. And as more and more ordinary Filipinos stop being bystanders to human rights issues, the time will come when the tipping point is reached, and then a vast mobilization towards change will be underway.

This is the way forward  to accurately remember the past, then to be keenly aware of the present, to perceptively differentiate both, to carefully formulate more appropriate solutions for the present and to zealously educate more people to come on board, so that we may all bring about the change we have been working tirelessly for.

Twenty years on from the December coup d’etat of 1989, we find ourselves in a position to either lament at how things have not changed, how human rights remains perilously situated, or to carefully decipher what is different.

Twenty years forward, we can either resign ourselves to the fate that our country found itself in, or we can appreciate how over the years, our people’s constant, if not resoundingly effective, resolve to fend off threat after threat, has kept our freedom and democracy intact.

Finally, twenty years forward, we can either resign ourselves to the possibility that this is what the Filipino people will always be, scandal and tumult-weary, or we can polish the old dreams of change that human rights advocates of the past had held dearly and give them a new sheen.

Of these choices, we all know which ones you have selected. Of these choices, we all know what the ALG had always stood for. It has been twenty years of re-affirming the choices that protect our democracy. It has been twenty years testing the limits of our freedom. It has been twenty years of stewardship over human rights. Indeed, you, the members of the Alternative Law Groups, are and have always been the truest personification of our living democracy. We look forward to many more years of working together for our cause in human rights.

Congratulations to all of you on this 20th anniversary of the Alternative Law Groups. Thank you and good day.

Happy Human Rights Day to all of us!

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