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Nymia Pimentel Simbulan

June 1st, 2020

Human Rights as the Foundation of Good Governance: The Ironies of the Philippine Experience

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Nymia Pimentel Simbulan

June 1st, 2020

Human Rights as the Foundation of Good Governance: The Ironies of the Philippine Experience

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

“Confronted by these challenges and difficulties, human rights defenders in the Philippines have taken steps to muster all possible support targeting various sectors in Philippine society”, writes Dr Nymia Pimentel Simbulan, Professor and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, the University of the Philippines Manila and Executive Director of Philippines Human Rights Information Centre (PhilRights).

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The Rise of Populist, Autocratic, Strongman Regimes

To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity. – Nelson Mandela

The intersection of good governance and human rights is critical in the building of a robust democracy and the realization of sustainable development. While human rights provides the contents, norms and standards of good governance, good governance guided by human rights norms and principles, creates the conducive environment necessary for the State to respect, protect and fulfill human rights in a sustainable manner¹.

Human rights determines the behavior of governments as primary duty bearers — on how to conduct political affairs, processes and institutions, including what programs, plans and policies to prioritize, what laws to enact, how to allocate resources, and what structures to establish and/or strengthen. Good governance ensures opportunities, spaces and mechanisms that enhance peoples’ participation in decision-making, contribute to their empowerment, and strengthen transparency, accountability and the rule of law.

In recent years, the global community has witnessed the rise of populist, autocratic, strongman politics the likes of Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Donald Trump of the United States, Narendra Modi of India, and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil.² ³

Their governance styles and approaches have seriously affected the state of democratic institutions and processes, undermining fundamental freedoms and violating the human rights of the population.

This ruling style is not by any means new; what is new is the way in which this style of governance has taken advantage of the benefits of information technology, particularly social media, in order to promote simplistic narratives that bolster their popularity.

These leaders share similar characteristics when it comes to how they project themselves, the narratives that they spread, governance strategies, and approaches to rule of law and human rights. Among these shared features are:

  • Projection of the head of government as a decisive leader who is strong-willed, nationalistic, i.e. putting the nation above all else, and relentless in solving the country’s problems particularly poverty, crime, and corruption, and thereby creating a “cult of personality”. According to the narrative, this leader is different from the political elite who came before him, and is therefore closer to the people. Following the assertion that the country is in crisis and confronted by problems that require urgent and decisive actions because the political elite failed to address these problems, he presents himself as someone who is determined to “do whatever it takes” to get the job done, even in ways which are “unorthodox and verge on the illegal.”⁴ His popularity is based on the use of simplistic narratives having the ability to deliver a straightforward solution to complex problems based on an approach of “shooting from the hip”.
  • Laying out and overemphasizing one particular problem, usually having to do with criminality, to heighten people’s sense of insecurity and fear. This then lays the foundation for the need of the decisive leader to employ state violence and legitimizes the use of deadly force to deal with criminality and terrorism. (e.g. In the US, it was the criminal hordes of migrants; in India, it was Muslims who threatened the vision of a Hindu Indian nation; in the Philippines, it is people involved in the illegal drug trade, etc.) The populist leader takes advantage of state institutions that are legally authorized to use force — law enforcement institutions and the military — and employing the narrative of a “state of emergency” to carry out campaigns of violence that require authorities to be given the license to kill in order for government to proceed with least resistance in realizing its political agenda.

According to the narrative, violence is the most effective and efficient way to produce results when it comes to addressing the country’s serious problems like illegal drugs, crimes and terrorism. But the use of state violence also has the effect of producing a shocking and chilling effect on people. By establishing an atmosphere of fear, the violence discourages citizens from going against the State and its laws; it urges people to toe the line.

  • Taking advantage of the discontent of citizens with the “traditional political elite” who are seen as corrupt, using their government positions to consolidate political and economic power for themselves, and failing to address poverty and inequality. The populist leader has presented himself as “different” and has capitalized on the frustration and impatience of the population over the inability of the political elite and democratic institutions to curb the growing economic inequalities in these countries.⁵ This has translated to disillusionment with democracy and the promise of democratic institutions and practices to deliver.
  • Promoting the narrative that human rights norms, standards and principles get in the way of real progress on these serious problems. Human rights have been viewed as obstacles in the implementation and realization of State policies, plans and programs because according to these State leaders, human rights have served to weaken the State’s “war efforts”. Since human rights have been conveniently used to attack the State while at the same time used as shields or armors to protect “enemies of the State”, “destabilizers of government”, and “terrorists”, human rights to these leaders have no place in society. Even human rights organizations have been tagged as acting as “enemies from within” because they are hampering the government’s legitimate war efforts by choosing to defend “drug addicts”, “drug lords”, “criminals”, “rapists” who have been projected as evil, and deserving to be treated in a cruel and inhumane manner befitting animals. The universality of human rights has likewise been distorted by asserting that “criminals”, “drug users”, “drug pushers”, “drug lords” are not part of humanity ⁶, while at the same time distorting what human rights are about by accusing human rights defenders as not caring about the victims of crimes.

These leaders have resorted to capitalizing on their popularity to misuse state institutions to mount attacks against critics. They have also taken steps to systematically weaken democratic institutions that are meant to act as institutional constraints on the Executive power, under the guise of “doing whatever it takes” and taking a no-nonsense approach to getting the job done.

Take the example of President Duterte who used the Department of Justice (DOJ) to go after Senator Leila De Lima and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Ma. Lourdes Sereno, or President Trump in the US, allowing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to misuse the criminal justice system to deter activists, lawyers, journalists, and humanitarian volunteers from challenging — or simply documenting — the systematic human rights violations that US authorities have committed against migrants and asylum seekers by subjecting human rights defenders to warrantless surveillance, interrogations, invasive searches, travel restrictions, and, in isolated cases, a false arrest and unlawful detention. In so doing, they have violated the Constitution, US and international law, and DHS policies — all of which prohibit discriminatory restrictions of freedom of speech and expression. In some cases, US and Mexican authorities have reportedly collaborated in the unlawful restrictions against human rights defenders on their shared border.”⁷

  • Undermining the ability of the press, the Fourth Estate, to act as a counterbalance or check on government power by questioning traditional media, particularly media that is critical of government actions, and claiming that these are sources of “fake news”. These leaders use social media to disseminate propaganda, or to spread allegations meant to discredit, vilify, neutralize and/or silence their critics and opponents through the mobilization of a well-financed army of social media trolls. The strategy of constantly bombarding and saturating social and mass media with misinformation presented as “truths” has made the general public accept without question State pronouncements and assertions, even if these lack factual basis to the point of bordering on absurdity.

Reliance on these beliefs and practices has had serious consequences on peoples’ lives, livelihood, and social relations. It has likewise placed democratic institutions and processes in a precarious and unstable state.

Consequences of the Strongman Autocratic Leadership: The Philippine Experience

After the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 and prior to the installation of Rodrigo R. Duterte as the 16th President of the Republic of the Philippines in June 2016, the country enjoyed the reputation of having a dynamic human rights track record in Southeast Asia. This is evident by the existence of a human rights-influenced 1987 Philippine Constitution cognizant of the atrocities and human rights violations perpetrated by the Marcos government during the Martial Law period, a vibrant human rights movement, free mass media, and open democratic space. The Philippines was among the first country in Southeast Asia to establish a national human rights institution (NHRI) which has consistently enjoyed a status A accreditation by the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.⁸

The country has achieved major strides with the passage of numerous human rights enabling laws including the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013 (Republic Act №10368), Anti-Torture Act of 2009 (Republic Act №9745), Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012 (Republic Act №10353), The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 (Republic Act №10354), Generics Act of 1988 (Republic Act 6675), Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997 (Republic Act 8371), and The Magna Carta of Women of 2009 (Republic Act №9710). Moreover, the Philippines is a State Party to all key international human rights laws/treaties. However, significant changes took place and continue to take place in the socio-political landscape of the country when Duterte came to power in June 2016.

Laying the foundation for the “War on Drugs”

Presenting himself as “Father of the Nation”, Duterte has claimed that the way to move forward is to be tough and decisive in dealing with the key problems besetting the Philippines. He has identified illegal drugs as among the root cause of crimes and corruption in Philippine society, an assertion that has been propagated and accepted by different sectors, even in the absence of scientific evidence and solid data. Constant reiteration and bombardment by government of the public, civil society and the international community through the use of the mass and social media, reinforced by educational and government agencies/institutions, have transformed such narratives to be “real and true”.

Because he claims to know what will work best for the country, everyone is expected not to question and oppose his actions, not even by those in government. It is also because of this image and his chauvinist posturing that women’s groups have been attacked and insulted for openly criticizing his misogynist policies, programs and approaches.

Prior to his installation into power, Duterte used a discourse of a corrupt elite coddling drug dealers and addicts, incompetent in addressing problems of poverty and inequality in society, and primarily preoccupied in further enriching themselves while in power.⁹

While distancing himself from one section of the ruling class/political elites to show how different he is, he has, at the same time, forged strategic alliances and ties with the most powerful sections of the ruling class/political elites to strengthen his control of government and pursue his political agenda.¹⁰

In this way, he has further isolated and rendered powerless any legitimate opposition. In return, he has allowed these political allies to realize their own agendas and consolidate their power within their own turfs. This can be seen in the nature of his relations with the traditional Philippine political dynastic families, the Macapagal-Arroyos, Marcoses, Villars, etc.¹¹

The “War on Drugs” and the use of state violence

Complementing the framework that the country is “in crisis” is the strategy of drawing the line between the supporters and critics of government, thereby polarizing the country. In a state of war, he has asserted either you are with us or you are against us. Those on the side of government are rewarded and protected, while those who oppose the administration are labeled “enemies of the State”, obstructionists in the “war efforts” against drugs and criminality, and are therefore deserving of experiencing the “full force of the law” and its consequences. Thus, the official policy of launching a “war on drugs and criminality”, mobilizing police and military forces, and conducting mass killings and arrest of those believed to be involved in illegal drugs, has been legitimized.¹²

The escalation of human rights violations emanating from the use of state violence in addressing the country’s problems particularly crime and terrorism, is another impact of the actions of populist, autocratic leaders, very evident in the case of the Philippines. Law enforcement institutions and the military, complemented by the use of non-state hired armed groups/individuals, have served as the principal machinery in the State-sponsored violent campaign against illegal drugs, crime and terrorism. To make this more acceptable to “polite society”, drug users and drug dealers have been cast as criminals who can no longer be redeemed and therefore no longer have human rights and should thus not be treated humanely. They are projected to be “dregs of society” that deserve to be physically eliminated in order to protect the law-abiding citizens of the country from the havoc that they otherwise would have been wreaking on society.

Operating under the instruction and protection of the Chief Executive, abuses and human rights violations in the form of killings, illegal arrest and detention, torture, and enforced disappearance, have become a normal/common occurrence, and oftentimes justified and condoned.¹³ State agents have not been made accountable for their actions in the conduct of police and/or military operations in communities, consequently, perpetuating a culture of impunity.

It is therefore not surprising that the administration continues to push for the restoration of the death penalty in the country, a priority legislative measure of the President despite the Philippines being a State Party to Optional Protocol 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which does not allow for the restoration of the death penalty once it has been abolished from the law of the country.¹⁴

The rule of law has been seriously eroded with a culture of impunity becoming deeply entrenched and institutionalized. Instead of holding State agents accountable for human rights violations perpetrated in the context of the “war on drugs”, the President has assured them protection and freedom from prosecution for their actions. He continues to condone and even encourage members of the police force in the excessive and indiscriminate use of violence resulting to torture and death of alleged drug users and/or pushers in urban poor communities.¹⁵

The President has even gone to the extent of increasing the salaries of the men and women of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as reward for a “job well done” in the government’s campaign against illegal drugs and terrorism.¹⁶ Meanwhile, victims of the “war on drugs”, particularly the victims of extrajudicial killings (EJKs), have been denied access to justice. To this day, families of EJK victims, children referred to as “collateral damage”, and even those admitted by law enforcement agents as killed because of mistaken identity, have not seen a single State agent prosecuted, all the more punished and made accountable for their actions. They continue to go scot free and enjoy the protection of government officials including the President.

Impact of the “War on Drugs” on democratic institutions

Democratic institutions like the legislative and judicial bodies have been weakened in a bid to bolster executive power. The principles of transparency, and check and balance, have been replaced by the avowed virtues of loyalty, obedience and subservience to ensure that the priority programs and policies of government, foremost of which is the “war on drugs and criminality” will be on track. The rhetoric propagated by government is since the “drug menace poses a clear and present danger”¹⁷ dictating the country to be on war footing, the President should be given the leeway or prerogative to determine the strategies that are considered best to address the problems to be in control or on top of the situation. There is no room for questioning and opposition, and everyone is expected to contribute to the war effort; everyone is expected to make sacrifices for the greater good. Any criticism is viewed as obstructing and taking away from the war effort which should be dealt with accordingly by the State.

Furthermore, the President’s political party and avid supporters enjoy a monopoly control over the Philippine Congress, both the House of Representatives and Senate. The principle of checks and balances has been undermined with the transformation of Congress particularly the House into a rubberstamp of the President ensuring that “what the President wants, the President gets”. The Supreme Court upheaval resulting to the ouster of Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, and with 12 out of the 15 Justices of the Philippine Supreme Court (7 out of the 15 Justices, namely Associate Justices Andres Reyes Jr., Alexander Gesmundo, Jose Reyes Jr., Ramon Paul Hernando, Rosmari Carandang and Amy Lazaro-Javier and Henri Jean-Paul Inting with 5 more to be appointed this second half of 2019) appointed by the President before the end of 2019, is indicative of a disturbing development challenging the independence of the judiciary.¹⁸

Impact on human rights

The low tolerance for criticism and opposition has led to the shrinking of democratic space and the prevalence of an environment of fear and silence throughout the country. Freedoms of speech and expression are subtly being curtailed. Human rights defenders, mass media practitioners, and members of the political opposition who have consistently expressed contrary views, criticized government programs and policies, have not been spared from insults, embarrassment, and threats. They have been the targets of red-tagging and vilification campaigns. With the intention to malign and destroy their reputation and credibility, critics and/or opponents have likewise experienced harassment through the filing of trumped-up charges using fabricated evidences and hired witnesses.

The repulsion towards human rights and human rights defenders has led the Duterte government to virtually declare a “war against human rights”.¹⁹ It has distorted and bastardized human rights by asserting that “criminals, drug pushers, drug lords” are not humans;²⁰ threatened to kill and/or behead human rights advocates;²¹ ²²attacked and insulted international human rights bodies, officials and personalities like the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra-ad al Hussein.²³ ²⁴ ²⁵ ²⁶

It has likewise led to the abandonment of State obligations to international human rights commitment. Last March 17, 2019, the Philippines withdrew from being a State Party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), an act openly defying the United Nations and international critics.²⁷ There are also plans to abrogate its international human rights commitments being a State Party to Optional Protocol 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with the marching order of the President to Philippine Congress to reinstate the death penalty in the country.²⁸

The social cost of the “War on Drugs”

To date, close to 30,000 individuals²⁹ have been killed as a consequence of operations of police forces or unidentified assailants or men riding in tandem, or both, in the Philippines. The rights to life, due process, presumption of innocence, freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman treatment or punishment, freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, are among the civil and political rights denied and violated by the State.³⁰ Meanwhile, families of victims of civil and political rights violations, particularly State-perpetrated mass killings and/or extrajudicial killings, have been further deprived of their economic and social rights like the rights to decent work and pay, rights to education, health, housing, and social security.

The poor, who have been the primary targets of the “war on drugs” of the Duterte government as evidenced by the socio-demographic profile of the close to 30,000 victims of mass killings, have experienced multiple burdens with the impact of civil and political rights violations on their economic and social rights. The death of the husband, father, son, usually the breadwinner of the family, has left behind not only stigmatized widows, traumatized children, and terrorized communities in the course of the drug campaign of the government in urban poor communities. A major consequence of the “war on drugs” on the poor is that it has exacerbated and deepened their impoverishment and marginalization. Wives and/or mothers, in addition to their being caretakers of the children and elderly, have been forced to assume the role of breadwinner formerly played by the dead family member to make both ends meet. Children, who oftentimes have witnessed the murder of their father, mother, sibling and/or relative, experience fear, shame and discrimination having its toll on family and community relations, health, and attendance and performance in school.³¹

There is no doubt that the families of the close to 30,000 victims of the “war on drugs” in the Philippines have experienced further deterioration in their poverty situation. Widows, mothers and loved ones of victims of the “war on drugs” have difficulty or are unable to find decent jobs or sources of livelihood; children are forced to drop out of school; the state of homelessness, hunger and sickness among urban poor has worsened; and possibly involvement in crimes, including the selling and/or use of illegal drugs, among the youth and young adults in urban poor communities, has deepened.³² Not to mention the impact on the state of mental health, particularly of the wives, parents, children because of the shock, disbelief, guilt, grief, of the sudden and violent death of a loved one.

Even families of victims of extrajudicial killings in the context of the “war on drugs and criminality” have decided to keep mum to injustices and repression within their midst. For fear of retribution and absence of resources to defend themselves and seek justice through the judicial system, they have chosen to leave their fate to God and/or move out of their places of residence for safer areas and to escape the punitive actions of unscrupulous law enforcement agents, many of whom are operating within the community. This attitude of passivity and resignation is dictated by their feeling of powerlessness and deprivation, a common characteristic of poor victims of State violence. Thus, in communities where there is seeming order and stability are residents engulfed and immobilized by terror, distrust and suspicion.

Ways Forward: Instituting Genuine Changes

Confronted by these challenges and difficulties, human rights defenders in the Philippines have taken steps to muster all possible support targeting various sectors in Philippine society. They have also reflected on the weaknesses and gaps of the human rights movement in the conduct of its advocacy work especially with the continuing support and popularity enjoyed by the Duterte administration from the people.

A priority course of action taken is raising peoples’ awareness and understanding of human rights and its principles through mass education and information campaigns. Human rights groups have realized the value of sustained, age-specific and creative ways of conducting human rights education and information work in order for it to be viewed as important and relevant to the lives of ordinary citizens from all walks of life.

Not only have human rights NGOs paid attention to improving and simplifying the contents and language of human rights education and information work. Methodologies in the conduct of education activities have likewise been improved or enhanced. Training on popular education techniques like the use of theater, street plays, arts, songs, games and community participation, have been incorporated in human rights education curriculum for people from all walks of life, i.e. urban poor residents, women, children, youth and students, artists, indigenous peoples, workers and peasants, church people, etc.

Human rights NGOs have also devoted much time and effort in the development and production of culturally-appropriate information, education and communication (IEC) materials for various audiences to ensure that these will complement educational activities conducted in urban poor communities, schools, workplaces, parishes, farms, etc. Details like type of materials, language, art works and designs, and lay-out are studied and adopted to suit the target audiences.

Organizing work is another measure recognized as valuable by HRDs in the Philippines. Efforts have been taken to set-up human rights task forces, ministries, committees and other types of formations in different areas and territories. These have been undertaken usually in partnership and collaboration with community organizers/coordinators, progressive church people, trade unionists, student leaders, peasant leaders, environmental activists, etc. Organizing people at various levels and scale is emphasized to contribute to peoples’ empowerment through collective actions in the defense of their rights.

Closely linked to organizing is mobilization. Peoples and communities are encouraged and assisted to prevent human rights violations and/or protect their rights. Participation in mass protest actions like rallies, demonstrations and pickets, joining lobby work in Congress, doing the rounds of schools and communities to conduct education and/or information activities, helping out in the production of IEC materials, or just simply convincing a family member, neighbor, friend to attend community forums or assemblies on social issues, are different forms of mobilization made available to peoples and communities.

A distinct form of mobilization which HRDS have provided particularly the families of victims of the “drug war” and alleged EJKs is their participation in the documentation of cases of human rights violations. This involves mobilization in the form of sharing their stories/experiences and allowing these to be documented by HRDs; convincing other victims to have their stories/experiences documented by HRDs; attending documentation training workshops conducted by HR NGOs; and/or engaging in actual documentation activities. There have also been families of victims of alleged EJKs who have gone to the extent of filing cases against known perpetrators of human rights violations through the assistance of human rights lawyers.

Concomitantly, human rights NGOs have collaborated with journalists, film makers and other media practitioners recognizing their role and contribution in disseminating the stories and experiences of the victims of human rights violations and ensuring that their narratives are not forgotten. All these in the hope of seeking justice and reparation in the future. Journalists and media practitioners have also been instrumental in humanizing victims of EJKs by being able to put names and faces behind the statistics.

Moreover, HR NGOs have taken efforts to maximize international solidarity work by participating in international conferences, forums to disseminate to the world the state of human rights of the Filipino people under the current administration. NGOs have become more active in sending delegations to U.N. activities to do lobby work and solicit support to address the human rights situation in the country. The recent resolution filed by Iceland and adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on the Philippines is an example of intensified efforts exerted by Philippine NGOs for the international community to take action on the human rights situation in the country.³³

Last but not the least is the defense and protection of HRDs against various forms of attacks from the State. HR NGOs have taken steps to enhance their capacities and competencies to defend themselves and protect their organizations through education, training, networking on personal and organizational safety and security, including digital security.

All these activities are interlinked, overlap and reinforce each other. These do not come in any order but are conducted simultaneously depending on the situation and needs of organizations, peoples and communities with the objective of eventually bringing about genuine change in Philippine society. After all, a government that thrives on state violence, lies and deception is a government founded on unstable grounds; it is a government that will eventually be discredited in history, if not rejected by the people.

 


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32 Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights)……
33 Sofia Tomacruz. Why Iceland led UN resolution on PH drug war killings. Rappler. July 19, 2019. https://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/iq/235775-why-iceland-led-un-resolution-drug-war-killings-philippines (Accessed: 19 Oct. 2019)

 

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*This blog is based on Prof Simbulan’s talk delivered at the 2019 LSE Southeast Asia Forum.

*The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the author

Nymia Pimentel Simbulan

Professor Nymia Pimentel Simbulan is Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, University of the Philippines Manila, and Executive Director of Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights), a human rights institute which is part of Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA). PhilRights has played an important role in the abolition of the death penalty in the country in 2006. It has also played a leading role in the submission of alternative reports on economic, social and cultural rights to the UN.

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