Lessons from the past

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Gordon Kricke (The Philippine Star) - September 20, 2017 - 4:00pm

In less than two weeks we will celebrate the German national day, the anniversary of the German reunification. The end of the German – and European – division into East and West would not have been possible without the courage of East Germans protesting peacefully against the communist tyranny and forcing the opening of the Berlin wall. This happened just a few years after the EDSA revolution where brave Filipino citizens demonstrating for democracy, human rights and a fairer society brought down the corrupt and abusive Marcos dictatorship. This shared history of a peaceful revolution unites Filipinos and Germans and is something both peoples can be proud of.

However, democracy and the rule of law is not something that once established can be forever taken for granted. We must uphold and defend it continuously. Sometimes hard choices have to be made. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when an intern working at the embassy told me that his father was the judge in a criminal case that 15 years ago shocked Germany and which I still remember very well: at that time a ruthless criminal abducted a child to extort ransom from his parents. He was arrested shortly after the money had been paid, but refused to reveal where the victim was held captive. In desperation the policemen threatened to torture him if he did not lead them to the hiding place. Only then did he relent and confessed that he killed the boy immediately after kidnapping him. He was sentenced to life in prison and is still behind bars.

However, also the policemen who threatened him with torture had to face criminal and disciplinary charges. Germans were appalled by the hideous crime and there was widespread understanding for the moral conflict of the policemen. Some Germans reacted with indignation to the proceedings against the policemen since they were only motivated by the desperate wish to rescue the boy, who – they believed – might still be alive. But most agreed that the threat or use of torture is never justified. Also the majority of media insisted that under no circumstances may the police violate human rights and even the worst criminals have a right to due process and humane treatment. Acceptance of human rights violations, even in extraordinary circumstances, can only be a slippery slope to something worse. This principle is enshrined in the German constitution which states that “human dignity is inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”

From a human perspective there may be some understanding for the German policemen, but as law enforcement officers they broke the law and undermined the trust that the state will always follow its owns rules. That could not be tolerated. This position should not be confused with weakness or misguided compassion with a brutal criminal. On the contrary upholding the rule of law in any condition is a matter of self-respect. A state must not allow its fundamental principles and core values to be corrupted.  Those who enforce the law have to respect it even more than ordinary citizens.

These events which happened 15 years ago were certainly very extreme and unusual. In fact opinion polls show regularly that the police is one of the most trusted institutions in Germany, violent crime is fortunately very rare and on average over 95 percent of murder cases are solved by the police. But the trust of citizens in the police must be earned over and over again. It may not be taken for granted. This obligation is also part of the spirit and the legacy of those citizens demonstrating peacefully in the 1980s for human rights, democracy and freedom. 

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(Gordon Kricke is the Ambassador of Germany.)


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