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Balancing acts

A separate and independent judiciary is critical to upholding the rule of law – no matter which King is in power. The rule of law takes the place of the will of the King. Thomas Paine, America’s Jose Rizal, wrote that “…in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king.”

As actions of the King and his men impact increasingly on the people, so does the responsibility of judges to stand up and protect them when these acts violate the law. Men in power may renege on their oaths but for as long as people believe the courts capable of granting relief, then there is balance and society deserves to call itself free.

To succeed in this role, the Judiciary must maintain a healthy independence. Only with this mindset can it serve as ballast when the political departments’ overreach threaten to sink the ship. Thus, the logical first step of those who would consolidate power would be to co-opt that independence. The surest way to accomplish that would be to bend the Judiciary to the will of the very departments they scrutinize.

Diminishes us all. The parchment barriers separating the three great departments earned their monicker the way the Executive and the Legislative have bullied the Judiciary these past two administrations. By necessity, each branch initially interprets their constitutional power as they exercise it. With respect to impeachment, Congress gets first crack at deciding what constitutes impeachable conduct. The impeachment and trial of the late Chief Justice Renato Corona and the present effort to inflict the same on his successor, Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, shows how the Legislature has glossed over that threshold issue. The strict meanings of the constitutional grounds for impeachment has become as relaxed as a botoxed brow. And the result, then and again, is the weakening of the Judicial branch and a tearing of the fabric of ordered society.

These improvident impeachment assaults against our top magistrates have subjected the country and the Constitution to self-inflicted injury. The Judiciary, referred to as a wounded court by one esteemed pillar, was on its way to recovery under the Chief Justice’s spirited watch when this legislative force majeure resurfaced.

Shooutouts. High Noon has always been a favorite Hollywood western. The enduring image of the defiant lawman facing superior odds serves as a modern parable. It represents also that moment of truth when one comes face to face with his demons. The man with the tin star walks down the street to almost certain doom, abandoned by a community cowed into settling for the status quo, battling his own resolve but ultimately trusting in the righteousness of his cause. When you’re right, what can go wrong? This classic story of the shootout between good and evil was the incubation chamber for the moral code of many generations.

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The thing is: the tin star is supposed to identify the good guy. But not in the Philippines. Not today. According to the people, as surveyed by Social Weather Stations, the lawmen are the ones doing the killing. Even in a confrontation between good and evil, the roles can be reversed if the good goes off script.

The epidemic of nanlaban, a.k.a. shootout in South American narco countries, is a fantasy. It can only be  murder, plain and simple, says at least 54 percent of Filipinos when a perpetrator ends up dead at the hands of the police. Every one is entitled to legal process. In the public mind, a day in court legitimizes what street justice never can.

Don’t shoot. Across the nation, the victims’ families are shaking off their fear and seeking justice for their loved ones. This is the true nanlaban. Increasingly, cases are being filed by the families of the murder victims to hold the police accountable for their summary actions. We applaud their courage and the actions of volunteer lawyers’ groups lending their voices and their strength to these hapless souls. 

Not just on the home front. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) may have adopted the Philippine report on its human rights record and commitments but the number of member states that have expressed serious concern about the Philippines human rights situation has risen to 39. In a joint statement delivered at the 36th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, they stated in part: “We urge the government of the Philippines to take all necessary measures to bring these killings to an end and cooperate with the international community to pursue appropriate investigations into these incidents, in keeping with universal principles of democratic accountability and the rule of law.” They also called upon the government to welcome a visit from the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, without preconditions or limitations.

The statement, and the addition of seven signatory countries to the first 32 that expressed deep concern at the 35th session last June, was fueled by our rejection of more than half of the 257 recommendations of the UN HRC during the Philippines’ Third Universal Periodic Review in Geneva.

Upping the ante. The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development is more explicit: “If the situation in the country does not improve, the UN Human Rights Council must pass a resolution at its next session in March, establishing an international, independent investigation into killings associated with the ‘war on drugs.’” 

Sec. Ernie Abella chose to highlight the positive, trumpeting the country’s acceptance of 103 of the UN HRC’s 257 recommendations. He says this is part of our freedom to chart an independent foreign policy. Independent? Maybe rogue. Unless it has become our foreign policy to place human rights as last priority, we must comply with our obligations to the international community and observe peremptory norms. Visit any classroom and inquire about their understanding of peremptory norms or jus cogens and, invariably, the top answers would begin with human rights.

 

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