Freedom, Human Rights, and the Philippine Experience
Delivered during the World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, Austria
June 16, 1993
I address you today from a unique perspective. I am here both as a victim of human rights violations, and as one privileged to have helped liberate my country from the dictatorship which imposed these violations. I have learned not only that oppression can be conquered, but it can be conquered without the greater tyranny of brute force.
But freedom is a strange gift, almost as difficult to use wisely as it is to lose. As a leader, I have discovered that upholding and promoting human rights as the first priority of Government has often had to be done at great personal and political cost.
I hope today to impart to you that this is nonetheless possible, and not only possible, but necessary. My commitment to freedom has been criticized as “ill-advised” because it has been viewed as leading to a corresponding lack of discipline in my countrymen. Some equate democracy in the third world with chaos. My contention is that there is no greater chaos than order when it is used as a rationale for depriving people of their freedom.
Dark Days of Martial Rule
My people lived through 14 years of martial law, under the one-man rule of Ferdinand Marcos. In these 14 years, thousands were jailed without charges, tortured or killed merely on suspicion they were “enemies” of Government. My husband Ninoy was among these victims. Throughout his imprisonment of seven years and seven months and his mock trial and sentencing to death by a military court, my children and I drew strength from knowing that we were not alone, that a substantial number of our countrymen silently supported my husband’s peaceful struggle.
The Awakening of a People
It was not a total surprise, therefore, that when Ninoy was murdered by agents of the State at the steps leading to the tarmac of the Manila International Airport on August 21, 1983, Filipinos turned out in the millions to express their anger and their grief. And that less than three years later, their anger and grief had turned into the revolutionary courage needed to drive out the dictator. Those heady days of peaceful change in my country were recorded by the media and flashed all over the world as a triumph of the human spirit. EDSA, that strip of highway where our people converged to express their solidarity with all anti-dictatorship forces, including portions of the military, became a part of the world map.
Our “peaceful revolution” made us international darlings, but we learned there is a great difference between reaction and concrete action. Governments and political leaders paid us lip service, but hardly any meaningful assistance. Financing institutions stalled behind the shield of banking principles, instead of acknowledging the universal principles of human relations. The international community praised us, then came up with reams of analysis on the EDSA revolution. Meanwhile, our economy was bankrupt, after having been raided by the Marcoses and their cronies. How were we to sustain our newly won freedom without rice in our bellies? Although the Philippines had laid claim to have set the stage for such struggles, our moment had passed. It would dawn on us that we would have to go it alone.
Fortunately the lessons of EDSA were not altogether lost. Soon, EDSA reappeared in Berlin, spread to East Germany, the whole of Eastern Europe, and even to the Soviet Union. Repressed peoples all over demonstrated that more than academicians, statesmen, politicians, international bankers, and world leaders, it was they who truly understood what EDSA meant. No praise, no applause, no analysis and no sympathies for them – just emulation.
Restoration of Democracy
When we deposed Mr. Marcos in 1986, the highest expectation from the new government was that it would restore democracy and protect and promote human rights. During my presidential campaign, the loudest cries I had heard were not for food, not work, nor money, but for democracy.
And so, along with the dismantling of the political and economic structures of the dictatorship, I proceeded to restore press freedom and the respect for human rights.
My first act as President was to release all political prisoners, including members of the Communist Party, despite opposition from the military. Then I created the Presidential Committee on Human Rights, led by human rights lawyer Jose Diokno, who had once been imprisoned with my husband. Its mission was to investigate human rights violations during the Marcos regime and to recommend steps to further promote human rights in the country.
On the recommendation of the Diokno Commission, I repealed repressive presidential decrees issued by Marcos, among them those which suspend the writ of habeas corpus; which authorized the President to issue arrest orders during a state of emergency, in the interest of “public safety” or to “quell invasion;” and which authorized him to arrest those who had taken part in political offenses. Last year, my government repealed Presidential Decree 1850, which guaranteed a military trial for armed forces personnel suspected of human rights violations.
Repealing repressive laws, I was sure, would not be enough. Those in the cutting edge of the fight against insurgency and crime would have to understand, appreciate and internalize the concepts and values involved in human rights protection. I therefore issued an order that would require all police and military personnel to under training in human rights concepts, principles and laws. To help preclude a repeat of government sponsored human rights violations, and to make human rights violations anathema to the succeeding generations of Filipinos, I issued another order that requires the teaching of human rights in the formal and informal school systems.
The Freedom Constitution
When I first took office, understandably without the benefit of an orderly turn-over, we had to spend time studying the real situations, as opposed to the lies pandered by the dictator. What we saw made not a few of my advisers blanch with fear for the future of our country. There were many who concluded that the damage wrought by 14 years of martial misrule could not be corrected overnight. And there were those who, even while blushing, counseled that perhaps we could really only bring our country back to its feet with the use of authoritarian powers favored by Marcos. But I had made my promise to our people. I said we shall restore democracy. And I decided to restore democracy through the ways of democracy.
In 1986, I created the Constitutional Commission, named a number of martial law activists as its members and tasked them with writing a new constitution for our newly restored democracy. The following year, our people overwhelmingly ratified this new constitution, said to be one of the most eloquent expressions of a people’s democratic aspirations in modern history.
This Constitution enshrines respect for human rights as State Policy. Article II, Section II reads: “The State values the dignity of every human person and guarantees full respect for human rights.”
This Constitution declares “the State shall promote social justice in all phases of national development.” (Art. II, Sec.10).
This Constitution guarantees that in maintaining peace and order, “the protection of life, liberty and property and the promotion of the general welfare are essential for the enjoyment by all the people of the blessings of democracy.” (Art. II, Sec. 5).
In May of 1987, I signed Executive Order 163 organizing the Philippine Commission on Human Rights in accordance with the Constitution. The Commission investigates all forms of human rights violations involving civil and political rights. It provides legal measures which protect the human rights of all Filipino citizens and all residents of the Philippines. It provides for legal aid for underprivileged victims of human rights violations. It exercises visitorial powers over jails, prisons and detention facilities, and handles the training of our police and military officers in human right concepts, values and principles.
Policy of Transparency
In line with my policy of transparency, Government invited various monitoring bodies to observe our efforts to restore and promote human rights. The Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances visited the Philippines in 1989 on our invitation. Though these groups’ reports were critical of the country’s human rights situation, we continued to cooperate with them because we believed in the integrity of the international instruments they were enforcing.
The policy of transparency also encouraged the proliferation of non-governmental organizations, many of them critical of my government’s efforts in human rights protection and promotion. These organizations helped Government appreciate the gravity of our human rights situation. In response, I created an advisory body, the Presidential Human Rights Committee, to advise me directly in human rights matters. The Committee was headed by the Secretary of Justice and had representatives of the human rights NGOs as members. Together they examined laws, processes, military guidelines in armed conflict, the treatment of prisoners, and the arrest of those suspected of subversion; and they also drew up draft presidential issuances to improve the situation.
The Armed Forces Reform
My human rights policy was also one reason a small group of officers who had enjoyed immunity during the previous regime were able to mount as many as seven coup attempts against my government. But it is a measure of the strength of our democratic institution that the majority of the armed forces stood by Government. The army belonged to the people again, as EDSA had shown.
The Commission on Human Rights has reported that human rights violation decreased 36% from 1989 to 1992. By last year, the Philippines had ratified 19 of 24 international treaties, instruments and conventions on human rights, six of them during my presidency: the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and its optional protocol; the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; and Protocol II relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts.
Sovereignty: A False Argument
It has become convenient for some nations today to invoke their sovereignty when their human rights records are criticized. And each state is indeed sovereign in the political and legal sense. National sovereignty is a sound legal principle, and serves to shield weak countries against domination by the strong.
But we are all members of the human race first, and individual sovereignty is by definition without geographical boundaries. For a nation to invoke its sovereignty while depriving its citizens of theirs would be the worst inhumanity. For other nations – no, other peoples – to swallow this sort of hypocrisy and do nothing would be no less a form of tyranny. The seeds of compassion, respect and justice lie in the hearts of men and women, not in the abstractions of law nor in that vast political machine called the State. They flourish in no political race, in no particular country.
In 1986, at the United Nations General Assembly, I said there were “many ways to run a country, but only one way to treat people: with decency and respect for their uniqueness as individuals. Only if those of us who have the responsibility of leadership respect our fellows and their essential right to find fulfillment in their lives can we hold our heads high.” This respect of other countries in the free world for universal human rights rather than the rights of particular governments or nations was what helped my country overthrow a dictator.
I am sure there are other aspiring democracies here who believe as I do in the effectiveness of human solidarity in protecting and restoring human rights and freedoms. I must stress here that this solidarity, should it take the form of intervention, must be pro-people and non-political, for it is all too easy for powerful nations to use restoration of democracy as a rationale for expansionism. All nations must express equal concern and initiate humanitarian action for both the victims of their allies and of their enemies, in both dictatorships and democracies. Only in this way can the community of nations succeed in ensuring the universal respect for human rights that it says is its goal. Nations which have two sets of policies for human rights – one for their shores and a more accommodating one for friends who are useful for the moment – have no place in this community.
Lesson from the Philippine Experience
In my United Nations address of 1986, I had said that “to be free, you can, as a people, appeal effectively to international standards for human rights set by others, such as the United Nations. Yet, in the end, to vindicate those rights, to achieve freedom, you are on your own.”
After six years as President, I have reached other conclusions.
First, if the restoration of civil and political rights is to succeed, it must be led by one committed to the seriousness of her mission. Serious danger comes from those threatened by reforms.
Second, it must have the support of the majority of the people, who would be ready to die in its defense.
Third, it must be subject to the scrutiny of non-governmental organizations and the international community. Transparency keeps one honest and deprives one of convenient excuses.
Fourth, it must have the support of the bureaucracy. Government must be responsive. Public servants must be sensitive to the plight of victims. The proper laws must be passed and followed, and the judicial system fair, effective and efficient.
Fifth, it must have the support of the military and the police. This does not come automatically, but should be nurtured.
Sixth, human rights must not be used as a political or propaganda tool by Government nor by any other entity in order to discredit the opposition. Any reporting on human rights must be truthful.
Finally, a government that undertakes this difficult but necessary task must not be thin-skinned. Criticism will be inevitable from those who expect dramatic change overnight, who will leave no room for honest mistakes, who will not be satisfied with anything less than perfection. These naysayers must not be made an excuse to abandon the whole exercise altogether. The majority have too much to lose.
In 1986, I told the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York: “The rule of law is the only human order. Its perversion, going by the name of ‘law and order’ or ‘national security,’ should fool no one except those willing to be fooled. To think of human rights at all, to be concerned about them, should be to think universally of human rights for all.” I also said that the struggle for human rights was far from over.
That is true today as then, and as true for my country as it is for others. We are still struggling under economic and political burdens. But I would like to think we have not forfeited our humanity for them. It is a lesson I hope the world can learn.