KASAMA Vol. 21 No. 3 / July-August-September 2007 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

The Old Struggle for Human Rights, New Problems Posed by Security

Delivered on April 18, 2007 on the occasion of the conferment of the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of the East, Manila* by Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, Supreme Court, Philippines

Reynato S Puno“Tomorrow begins in the East,” trumpets the motto of this venerable institution of learning. In his last moments in Bagumbayan, our national hero Jose Rizal stared at tomorrow in the eye, veered his bullet-riddled body to the right and fell lifeless on the ground — face turned towards the rising sun in the east.[1] From the cradle to the grave, Rizal consecrated his life to fight for the human rights of our people.

Today, you will be certified as a walking intellectual. Tomorrow, you will be looking at our people with a fresh eye. I urge you to use your new eye to perceive the meaning and nuances of our continuing struggle to protect and push to new thresholds the human rights of our people.

The wisdom of hindsight informs us that human rights stem from three bedrock rights: the right to life, the right to human dignity, and the right to develop.[2] From the right to life springs our right to own property, to health, to work, to establish a family. From the right to human dignity flows our right to equal treatment before the law, to freedom of thought, of conscience, of religion, of opinion, expression, and to be recognized as a person everywhere. From the right to develop comes the right to education, and to live in an environment that allows all of our rights to flourish in full.[3]

There is no human without any right. The caveman and the civilized man have the same natural rights. Human rights inhere in all of us as human beings, as beings higher and different from other creatures. Since they are innate to man, since they are inherent to his being, these rights are inalienable and cannot be taken away; they are inviolable and cannot be waylaid by any might of man; their preservation is an obligation shared by the rulers and the ruled alike.

Our history tells us that in this small patch of the earth, our forefathers pioneered in planting the seeds of human rights when it was far from being the fad and fashion of the day. On May 31, 1897, they established a republican government in Biak–na–Bato. It had a Constitution advance on political and civil rights. With serendipity, its authors Felix Ferrer and Isabelo Artacho embedded in it four articles which guaranteed freedom of the press, the right of association, freedom of religion, and freedom from deprivation of property or domicile except by virtue of judgment passed by a competent court of authority. They entrenched these radical ideals in 1898 when Aguinaldo established a revolutionary government and adopted the Malolos Constitution.

Then came our war against the United States. American President McKinley sent the First Philippine Commission headed by Jacob Gould Schurman to assess the Philippine situation. On February 2, 1900, the commission reported to the President that the Filipino wanted above all a “guarantee of those fundamental human rights which Americans hold to be the natural and inalienable birthright of the individual but which under Spanish domination in the Philippines had been shamefully invaded and ruthlessly trampled upon.” In response to this, President McKinley, in his Instruction of April 7, 1990 to the Second Philippine Commission, provided an authorization and guide for the establishment of a civil government in the Philippines stated that “(u)pon every division and branch of the government of the Philippines … must be imposed these inviolable rules…” The “inviolable rules” included, among others, that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

The “inviolable rules” of the Instruction were reenacted almost exactly in the Philippine Bill of 1902, in the Philippine Autonomy Act of 1916 or the Jones Law, and in the 1935 Constitution. The 1935 Bill of Rights was carried into the 1973 Constitution with a few changes, and finally in the 1987 Constitution. As an aftermath of the martial law regime of the Marcos government, the 1987 Constitution, enshrined a Bill of Rights which more jealously safeguards the people’s fundamental liberties. In clear and unmistakable language, the Constitution proclaimed as a state policy that “(t)he state values the dignity of very human person and guarantees full respect for human rights.” In addition, it has a separate Article on Social Justice and Human Rights, under which, the Commission on Human Rights was created.

The horrors of the World Wars warn us that the protection of human rights is a duty we owe to generations to come. In 1945, the peoples of the United Nations (UN), declared in the Preamble of the UN Charter that their primary end was the reaffirmation of “faith in the fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small,” in order “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

The promotion of human rights is also the indispensable predicate of peace and progress. For this reason, on December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its two implementing covenants are the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These instruments not only denounced nazism and fascism, but also recognized that the “security of individual rights, like the security of national rights, was a necessary requisite to a peaceful and stable world order.”

The interesting question is what has happened to human rights in this new millennium? The end of the Cold War ended the bipolar world starring the West led by the United States and the East led by Russia. The end result of that clash of civilization is the emergence of a unipolar world dominated by democracy as the political ideology and the triumph of capitalism as the bible of economics. With communism out in the cold, the world awaited with bated breath the dawn of universal peace and order. But when peace appeared to be within mankind’s grasp, 9/11 shattered to smithereens its illusion. 9/11 gave birth to new realities on ground with grave repercussions on the human rights situation in the world, especially the most vulnerable sector, the poor who are many, the many yet the most impotent.

On the universal level, 9/11 altered the face of international law. As the worst victim of terrorism, the United States led the fight to excise and exorcise terrorism from the face of the earth. It pursued a strategy characterized by a bruising aggressiveness that raised the eyebrows of legal observers. The leader country of democracy did not wait for the United Nations to act but immediately sought to search and destroy terrorists withersoever they may be found. In less polite parlance, the search and destroy strategy gave little respect to the sovereignty of states and violated their traditional borders. The strategy which is keyed on military stealth and might had trampling effects on the basic liberties of suspected terrorists for laws are silent when the guns of war do the talking. The war on terrorism has inevitable spilled over effects on human rights all over the world, especially in countries suspected as being used as havens of terrorists. One visible result of the scramble to end terrorism is to take legal shortcuts and legal shortcuts always shrink the scope of human rights.

These shortcuts have scarred the landscape of rights in the Philippines. In March 2006, Amnesty International issued a public statement expressing grave concern over reports of an ongoing pattern of political killings of members of legal leftist organizations in various provinces in the country. It also stated that in the wider context of continuing nationwide counter–insurgency operations against the New People’s Army (denounced as terrorists) periodic human rights violations, including arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial executions and torture, continue to be reported. Aside from them, community activists, church workers, lawyers, journalists and others perceived as sympathetic to the communist movement suffered violation of their human rights. Not to be outdone, the NPAs are also reported to have lawlessly retaliated against their opponents.

The escalation of extra judicial killings in the Philippines has attracted the harsh eye of advocates of human rights. The UN Commission on Rights has sent Prof. Alston to look at the Philippine human rights situation. Some members of the International Parliamentary Union are in town for the same purpose. Their initial findings are not complementing to our Constitutional commitment to protect human rights.

As young graduates, you may be asking yourself the relevance of these ongoing violations of human rights to your life, especially as you embark on your journey to improve the economic aspects of your life. I submit that the fight against terrorism and the battle to preserve human rights have high impact on the right of young people to live with dignity. One of its ill–effects is the massive displacement of young people in areas where the fight against terrorism tramples on human rights. These young people are compelled to migrate to seek greener pastures in hostile environments and, worse where they find their human rights subjected to new abuses with near impunity. Figures show that this problem of displacement will get worse in the coming years because of the galloping growth of the youth population. The United Nations predict that some 138 countries will have growing “youth bulge”; its calamitous consequence is that youth unemployment will skyrocket to record levels with the highest rate in the Middle East and North Africa. The UN findings further reveal that at least 60 million people aged 15–20 will not be able to find work and twice as many, about 130M, cannot lift their families out of poverty. It will not take a prophet to predict that countries that cannot give decent life to their young people will serve as incubators of extremism that may end up in terrorism.

And this leads me to the proposition that we need to give a broader, innovative view on our efforts to protect the human rights of our people which should consider our distinct social, economic and political context. Defying the cult of conformity and comfort, I submit that this view should consider the following facts and factors:

One. Terrorism is just one means of violating our human rights, especially our right to life itself, and should not consume our entire attention. Often, terrorism attracts universal attention because of its cinematic impact — the shocking violence, the bravado of the villains, the heroism of the victims’ rescuers, the sickening loss of lives and property and the dominance of the animal in man. Terrorism is terrible enough but the mindless, knee jerk reaction to extirpate the evil is more discomforting. The quickie solution is to unfurl the flag, sing the national anthem and issue the high pitched call to arms for the military and the police to use their weapons of destruction under the theme victory at all cost. To put constitutional cosmetics to the military–police muscular efforts, lawmakers usually enact laws using security of the state to justify the diminution of human rights by allowing arrests without warrants; surveillance of suspects; interception and recording of communications; seizure or freezing of bank deposits, assets and records of suspects. They also redefine terrorism as a crime against humanity and the redefinition is broadly drawn to constrict and shrink further the zone of individual rights. If there is any lesson that we can derive from the history of human rights, it is none other than these rights cannot be obliterated by bombs but neither can they be preserved by bullets alone. Terrorism is a military–police problem but its ultimate solution lies beyond the guns of our armed forces.

Two. In fighting terrorism, let us not overlook the non–military aspects of our national security and their impact on human rights. The scholar Michael Renver hits the bullseye with the following analysis:

Today and yesterday’s broadsheets bannered the news about the stranglehold of poverty in the Philippines. The World Bank says that about 15M or 19% of Filipinos survive on less than $1 a day. Our National Anti Poverty Commission disputes the figures and claim that only 10.5 M Filipinos live on $1 a day. To the unsophisticated in the esoterics of economics, this is a distinction without difference for the cruel fact is that poverty stalks this land of plenty and hunger is still the best food seasoning of its people. In poor countries, it is poverty that truly terrorizes people for they are terrorized by the thought that they will die because of empty stomachs and not that they will lose their lives due to some invisible suicide bombers. In poor countries, it is also poverty that renders the poor vulnerable to violation of their rights, for the poor will not vindicate their rights in a justice system that moves in slow motion and whose wheels have to be greased with money. And would any dare to doubt, that our national security and our human rights are more threatened by the fear that we face an environmental collapse if we do not take immediate steps to save our seas and our forests from the despoliation to satisfy the economic greed of the few. Again, the realities may be uncomfortable but let the statistics talk and they tell us that in year 2000 for example, 300,000 people all over the world died due to violence in armed conflicts but as many people die each and every month because of contaminated water or lack of adequate sanitation.

Three. The threats to our national security and human rights will be aggravated if we have a state, weakened internally by a government hobbled by corruption, struggling with credibility, battling the endless insurgence of the left and the right; and, by a state weakened externally by pressure exerted by creditor countries, by countries where our trade comes from, by countries that supply our military and police armaments. A weak state cannot fully protect the rights of its citizens within its borders just as a state without economic independence cannot protect the rights of its citizens who are abroad from the exploitation of more powerful countries.

Fourth and lastly, the business of safeguarding our national security, the obligation of protecting human rights is a burden shared by all of us. It is not only the military that should tackle our problem of security for it is our security that is at stake, not their security. Security interest is a collective interest where everybody has a significant stake. In the same vein, the rich and the powerful should not consider the protection of the rights of the poor and the powerless as peripheral problems just because for the moment their own rights are unthreatened. Sooner or later, they will find that they who default in protecting the rights of the many will end up without rights like the many. The apathy of those who can make a difference is the reason why violations of human rights continue to prosper. The worst enemy of human rights is not its non believers but the fence sitters who will not lift a finger despite their violations. “If we have learned anything from September 11” wrote New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman, “it is that if you don’t visit a bad neighborhood, it will visit you.”

Our work of protecting human rights is not yet finished. With the incursions and threats of incursion to our human rights at this crucial moment in our history, the clarion call to each one of us is to consecrate our lives to the great cause of upholding our human rights. When Rizal turned his face towards the rising sun, he saw hope in a heroic people carrying on the fight. Let us not allow the shadow of ignorance, indifference or indolence eclipse this hope so that we may continue to see a tomorrow begin in the East.

Thank you and again, congratulations.


* Downloaded at

[1] Zaide and Zaide, “Martyrdom at Bagumbayan” in Jose Rizal: Works and Writings of a Genius, Writer, Scientist and National Hero (1994).
[2] Diokno, J. A Nation for Our Children (1987), pp. 4–5.
[3] Universal Declaration of Human Rights.