Constitutionalism: The Rule of Law and the Changing Times
LAW ASIA Conference, PICC, Manila
August 28, 1997
Several months ago, my good friend, Paquito Villa invited me to be one of the speakers in this prestigious conference, on the topic: Constitutionalism: The Rule of Law and the Changinq Times. Of course, I was flattered and delighted to be considered for this honor and I accepted his invitation right away.
My academic credentials in law won't impress this astounding assembly of legal talent and expertise from various countries in this region. All I have are a few honorary doctorates in law, including one from the University of the Philippines. However, my brush with the law, in a manner of speaking, has not been all honorary.
I was in fact a Sophomore in the Law Institute of Far Eastern University, when I was convinced that love and marriage were more important than fulfilling my dream of becoming a lawyer. And so at the age of twenty-one, I bade good-bye to my law studies, without much regret as I got married to Ninoy Aquino, a very intelligent, attractive, interesting and impressive young man also twenty-one years of age.
At the age of seventeen, Ninoy had served as a foreign correspondent for the Manila Times publication during the Korean War. And at the age of twenty-one, he had been instrumental in persuading the Communist Supremo Luis Taruc to come down from the hills and make peace with President Magsaysay. At that time, Ninoy was a fourth-year law student in the University of the Philippines. Unfortunately, he did not continue with his law, studies after our marriage. Instead he decided to go back to his roots, to Concepcion, Tarlac in Central Luzon. He went into rice farming first and then became involved in politics.
And so, at the very young age of twenty-three, my husband was elected as the youngest mayor of the Philippines. However, the defeated opponent went to court and filed a case against Ninoy, stating that my husband should be disqualified and not be allowed to assume office, because he was under-aged. In the Philippines, the minimum age requirement to be a municipal mayor is 23. We used to hold elections on the second Tuesday of November. My husband was born on November 27, 1932. So he lacked several days, less than two weeks to be exact. My husband argued that he could only assume office on January 1 and so definitely he would be more than 23 years old at that time. Anyway, pending the decision of the Supreme Court, my husband did become the mayor. However, after two years, he was unseated by the Supreme Court.
I remember that the High Court took cognizance of the fact that since the people of Concepcion had voted overwhelmingly for Ninoy, in spite of the question on his age, it was suggested that perhaps the President could appoint him as mayor. But then, my husband decided that we should return to Manila and his Vice-Mayor became the Mayor. And that was my first personal and learning experience with the Rule of Law.
Next month, we shall mark the 25th anniversary of the imposition of martial rule, of which my husband was a prominent victim, among the tens of thousands who suffered in particularly intense and excruciating ways. And so we say: Never again to martial law! And George Santayana warned that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Yes, in less than four weeks, we will observe the 25th anniversary of martial rule via Proclamation 1081. Given even my measly one year of law school, I have known on the basis of first hand experience what laws could be bent and distorted, if we discard constitutionalism and the rule of law. My husband, Ninoy Aquino, a senator of the Republic was arrested and detained in a military camp without charges in the first hour of the morning of September 23, 1972. Two other senators, Jose Diokno and Ramon Mitra were also arrested and detained shortly thereafter, again without charges. Others who suffered the same fate were newspaper publishers, journalists, radio and TV news commentators, congressmen, Constitutional Convention delegates, student activists, etc.
Ninoy was tried by a military tribunal. And when he challenged the authority of the military tribunal to try him, a civilian, at a time when the civil courts were still functioning, the Supreme Court then under the control of the dictator just turned a deaf ear to his plea. Twelve of the country's leading lawyers, headed by Lorenzo Tanada, Jovito Salonga, Jose Diokno, Francisco Soc Rodrigo, Sedfrey Ordonez and Dakila Castro volunteered their services. However, under the kangaroo court of the dictator, Ninoy pointed out that he was a condemned man. For Ninoy's accuser, Marcos, was also to be the final judge in the cases filed against him. The dictatorship also got confessed killers as state witnesses who were ready to link Ninoy to any and every crime possible, so that they could obtain their freedom. As expected, the military tribunal sentenced Ninoy to death by firing squad on November 25, 1977. But because of international concern and pressure, the dictator decided to suspend the death sentence.
Under martial rule, Mr. Marcos took away from our people their rights to free speech, free press, free assembly, free labor, free vote, free government – and their freedom from illegal entry into their homes, illegal seizure of their belongings, and illegal arrest of their persons.
And so, I would like to talk about my administration's adamantine commitment to the rule of law in contrast to the one that preceded it.
During my watch, so to speak, our first order of business was to restore the democratic institutions as quickly as we could. Free speech, free press, free elections, free enterprise, free movement, an independent supreme court, an independent legislature, etc.
Not surprisingly, we did not always win our legal and political or policy battles. You win some, you lose some, as they say. But we complied for instance when the case against a certain minister who became a senator was ordered dismissed by the Supreme Court. We believed and still believe in constitutionalism and the rule of law.
Where warranted, we were compassionate and conciliatory, for he who is merely just is severe according to Voltaire. At times, this was misconstrued as weakness. There were those who misunderstood and underestimated us, including Mr. Marcos and the coup plotters, who kept trying and failing, but the people were behind us and we prevailed. However, the coup plotters caused long-term damage to our democratic values and struggling economy, delaying our recovery to no one's advantage.
I believe in and am devoted to due process given how much we suffered when it was denied our family. We hope there won't be any future Marcoses but we could or should not do when in power, what we criticized when out of it.
When government for instance is accused of spying on the democratic, peaceful opposition, is it enough to say the latter supposedly does it too? As Justice Brandeis wrote:
"Decency, security and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen. In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperilled if it fails to observe the law seriously. Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.
Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a law-breaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.”
On September 21 (the choice of Mr. Marcos who ruled by numerology) or September 23 (when Ninoy Aquino was arrested and the nation was informed on television about martial law), please say a prayer for those who persevered in defense of our liberties and died without seeing the dawn of February 25, 1986, when the darkness that descended upon the land 14 years earlier was lifted at last.
Rene Saguisag, my spokesman when I was a candidate for the presidency and in the early part of my administration, was fond of retelling what Chino Roces would predict to him, confidently in the late 70's. Chino would say that Aquino would surely replace Marcos.
However, in a less enlightened and more chauvinist era, no one bothered to ask which Aquino Providence would choose to lead our people out of the wilderness that was martial law.
The temptation to stay on must be resisted but Oscar Wilde cautioned that everything can be resisted except temptation. We cannot be too careful and determined. We should not be underestimated either. And here, we will again count on you in a possible new struggle to preserve the gains, as it were.
I am reminded of my last year in the presidency. Some people would tell me that I should worry about the fate of our democracy after I left office. I would be getting whispers of "You are indispensable. You are indispensable." Indispensable? As Charles de Gaulle said: “The cemeteries are full of indispensable people."
Speak out. For Dr. Martin Luther King said that the day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die. Those of you who were silent in the 1970's and were jolted into action only after Ninoy Aquino was assassinated in 1983, must reflect on what Robert Louis Stevenson said that "The cruellest lies are often told in silence."
If I may shift a bit before coming back to this vital and timely topic, as the current administration comes to a close, it is good to find out where it stands on the issue of human rights. Given the enforcement proceedings filed here in connection with the successful historic human rights class suit in Honolulu.
It comes at a time when we see more and more international cooperation and interdependence in crimes against humanity, such as gross violations of human rights.
I have no conflict of interest here in that our family did not file any claim in the name of perhaps the best-known victim of "salvaging" during the Marcos regime – Ninoy Aquino. However, those who did, have my support so that we can comply with a constitutional commitment and finally put the matter behind us and move on.
Reverting to what is always in our headlines of late, government has no right to ask our people to pick the poison they prefer, whether it is term extension or term limits lifting to favor incumbents.
Is not delicadeza enough?
Any time you tinker with the constitution to favor incumbents – with their built-in edge, in a self-serving way – the less stability and predictability you will have.
I have my share of critics of my record as president. However, I question whether any other personality would have received the broad support I got from our people and the International community which I got in those troubled times and enabled us to survive as a people. I firmly stood for constitutionalism and the rule of law in a most difficult time. I therefore offer no excuses or apologies for our quick re-democratization at the start, to the peaceful transition at the end. We have President Ramos to thank for building on what we began under trying circumstances.
On February 25, 1986, in the morning we were in the barricades, as it were, and hours later, we were in power. The time had come.
In the midst of doubt, of one thing I have always been certain. That knowing when to leave is no less important than knowing when to arrive. One would be well-advised not to over-stay his or her welcome. Mr. Marcos forgot about that.
We laid down our shares of bricks in the cathedral of democracy during our time in re-building what was not even Rome. The task would take time. Our successor has contributed his share. It is important to continue to build and strengthen institutions on values of solid granite and not erect personality cults on the shifting sands of ambition, expediency and fleeting popularity.
A term limit is precisely designed to protect a president from himself and compel him to focus on nation-building and statesmanship. I have no doubt that this is the reason, or at least one reason, why my good friend, President Ramos, has done as well as he has.
Now some egocentric myopic people would want to remove the very reason for his good performance as envisioned by the framers. Thereby, incidentally, they can also cling to power, which obviously has gone to their head, but of which they were so critical in the Marcos years. Any term limit lifting should not benefit incumbents who will appropriate funds for the exercise and enjoy an unfair edge in the plebiscite. Again, the matter of delicadeza.
One should not overstay his welcome. Certainly, I won't and on this note, I again thank you, even as I wish the event every possible success.