Human rights?

ROSES & THORNS - Alejandro R. Roces -

The last few weeks have demonstrated the state of human rights in the Philippines. The murder of three journalists over a period of seven days, coupled with the shooting of one of the key witnesses in the Maguindanao massacre offer disturbing testimony of that state.

In 1948, in the post-World War II world, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was crafted. It is a declaration that almost all nations of the time, including ours, signed on to support. The Preamble opens:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law…

The freedoms so enumerated in the Declaration cover freedom of religion, expression, assembly, from hunger, from slavery and abuse; a free education; freedom from tyranny; the right to equal representation under the law and so forth. The idea of equal application of the law is a governing factor in the Declaration, one that all should uphold.

As we have remarked, much of the Declaration is found in the writings of our Founding Fathers over 50 years prior. Their fight for independence helped them define the necessary ingredients for an equitable, fair and functioning society. Emilio Jacinto wrote: “Whether one’s skin be black or white, all people are equal; it may be that each is superior in knowledge, wealth, beauty but there is no superiority in human dignity.” The abrogation of human dignity comes in undermining the essential and basic human rights of an individual.

The most obvious human rights violations are unsolved extrajudicial killings and kidnappings. These violations, murders and massacres (like the Maguindanao Massacre of last November) and kidnappings are the manifestation of a continued undermining of the rule of law and the protection of human rights. This is what we refer to as a culture of impunity; a sense that certain parties can act in their interests, even if they are illegal, mainly because they do not fear legal response in any form. The Human Rights Watch wrote in their 2009 Report on the Philippines: “In the end, it is actions that will speak louder than words, and the only real indication of the government’s commitment to end these killings will be when the perpetrators are finally held to account in a court of law.”

We have always deplored the killing of journalists, and the lack of real prosecution of the killers. It is difficult to tout on the one hand that we have a free press when, on the other, we are now ranked as the third most dangerous country for journalists in the world. We may have laws that protect the freedom of expression, but the continued allowing of unresolved murders of journalists speaks differently. We hope that the most recent spate of murders, along with the assassination of the witness, will be properly investigated.

Protecting human rights is not just investigating and prosecuting extrajudicial killings and kidnappings. It is not just about solving crimes. We must also protect the rights, as laid out in the Declaration and by our Founding Fathers. Those cover freedom from extreme poverty and hunger, the right to a quality education, equal representation under the law, freedom of expression and so on. In encouraging and protecting those rights, the culture of impunity that exists today will, instead, be the one to disappear.

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