By Jejomar C. Binay
Former Vice President
In 1948, the Philippines, along with other member-states of the United Nations (UN), signed the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This historic document – and its two implementing covenants – binds member-states of the UN to recognizing, upholding, and promoting human rights and its importance in human and societal development. Our very own Constitution – the fundamental legal document of the land – affirms the value of human rights as enshrined in Article III, or what is commonly known as the Bill of Rights.
This needs to be stated in light of the recent move in the House of Representatives to allocate a measly P1,000 budget to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). This move, if finalized, will render the constitutional body useless and highly ineffective in the fulfillment of its mandate. In justifying their vote, many congressmen publicly stated that the CHR has been working against the current administration. In short, this was a partisan action ostensibly in response to the CHR’s alleged partisanship.
While partisan political realities continue to drive many governance decisions throughout Philippine history, the unilateral move of the House sets a dangerous precedent in relation to the powers vested by the electorate in their public officials. The question asked is whether the actions of the 119 congressmen who supported the move to weaken the CHR reflected the true sentiment of their constituents. Does it serve the interest of the people and society?
At the core of the raging controversy over human rights are the almost daily news reports of extrajudicial killings and alleged police abuse in the conduct of the war on drugs. However, human rights goes beyond the rights of man. Human rights encompass civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. They include the rights of man and the rights of the people.
The right to life and the right to due process is as important as the right to be free from hunger, to have access to health care and education. As an ardent proponent of human rights, I have always endeavored to reflect the value of these rights in my programs as Makati mayor. The social welfare program we developed and effectively implemented in the city of Makati is a reflection of a deep and sincere appreciation of the human rights of our residents.
Even the earlier part of my professional career was dedicated to fighting for human rights. Before becoming mayor of Makati, I was a human rights lawyer during the Marcos regime and many of my clients were victims of abuses under the dictatorship. I was an active member of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) under former senator Jose W. Diokno and headed the National Capital Region (NCR) chapter. I also joined the Movement of Attorneys for Brotherhood, Integrity, and Nationalism, Inc. (MABINI). Along with Rene Saguisag, Bobby Tanada, and other human rights lawyers, we took our advocacy beyond the courtrooms and into the streets. I was also part of the Lupon ng mga Manananggol ng Bansa (LUMABAN), a group composed of law professors from the Philippine College of Commerce (now Polytechnic University of the Philippines), and other Manila-based universities. During the day, we would appear in court and join rallies. Most nights were spent assisting victims of illegal arrests and detention.
Even then, I believed that the purpose of law is to ensure that each individual is given the opportunities and environment to prosper within a just and democratic society. The true measure of a working democracy can be seen in the value it places on the rights of its citizens – including his right to dignity and to improve himself – and the measures the State employs to promote and protect these rights.
The protection of human rights is primarily the function of the State. This is the rationale behind international and national laws on human rights. Unfortunately, the difference between common crimes and human rights violations has been of late obfuscated by authorities. But the reality is that it is the State that is obligated to promote and protect human rights.
However, other sectors in society must contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights. Especially at a time when human rights are again under siege, civil society groups and academic institutions must take a major role in pursuing this advocacy. As an institution for legal education, the University of Makati School of Law must spearhead initiatives to increase awareness on human rights issues, undertake research on the legal aspects of human rights, as well as explore areas of further study which will contribute to a deeper understanding and appreciation of human rights in the Philippines. This is why we have decided to open the UMAK School of Law Center for Human Rights.
Equally important is providing free legal assistance. Our upcoming Legal Aid Clinic will provide support for indigent Filipinos who cannot afford the services of a lawyer in addressing legal problems and issues, and seeking justice for violations of their rights.
The hard-earned democracy we now enjoy was borne out of decades of struggle against a regime that suppressed the rights of its citizens. This is why the framers of our Constitution ensured that institutions are in place to provide the necessary checks and balances against possible abuses by those in government. Today, human rights are once again under siege. And it will take the concerted effort of all sectors to protect these hard-earned gains.
The fight for human rights is a worthy cause. As former senator Diokno said, human rights are more than legal concepts: they are the essence of man. They are what make man human. That is why they are called human rights: deny them and you deny man’s humanity.