Bernardo M. Villegas
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Building A Human Rights Culture

          I have just read a book that should be required reading for all Filipinos in these times of a crisis in human rights.  No matter how long it may take, those of us who are concerned with the violation of human rights that is associated with the aggressive anti-drug campaign which is ongoing must be patient in repeating again and again the basic principles underlying human rights.  A very useful instrument in this task of human rights education is a text book by a prominent human rights lawyer and former member of the Commission on Elections, Atty. Rene V. Sarmiento.  The book is entitled “Human Rights Law, Human Rights Culture”, published by REX Book Store and used as a textbook in a good number of law schools, including in the University where I teach, the University of Asia and the Pacific.

         The book is introduced by quotations from the Old Testament, from the Magna Carta signed by King John in 1215,  and from the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.  It is worth reprinting them here: “If  you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday sun” (Isaiah 58: 9-10).  “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land” (Magna Carta, 1215).  “People look at rights as if they were muscles—the more your exercise them, the better they get” (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia).

         It does not matter if some people think that statements like the above are mere motherhood statements.  They have to be repeated again and again so they enter the subconscious of every thinking individual and eventually become the building blocks for the creation of a human rights culture in our society.  We should never tire in enunciating again and again the three basic principles of human rights which are listed by Atty. Sarmiento:  Universality which means that rights belong to and are to be  enjoyed by all human beings without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex or language, religion, political and other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other stature.  In other words, human rights belong to every individual wherever they are because they are human beings endowed with dignity.   The other two principles are indivisibility and interdependence.  These two related principles mean that the first generation of liberty rights and the second generation of equality rights are inter-related and are co-equal in importance.  They form an indivisible whole and only if these rights are guaranteed that an individual can live decently and in dignity.  The international community must treat human rights in equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.

         Atty. Sarmiento quotes the famous lawyer and former Senator, Atty. Jose W. Diokno, who was one of the most indefatigable defenders of human rights during the Martial Law regime.  In one of Atty.` Diokno’s writings, he said: “As lawyer for small farmers, fishermen, workers, students and urban poor, many of whom have been detained, most of whom have been threatened with detention, a few of whom have been shot and wounded, when they were peacefully exercising their rights of assembly, I have learned the painful lesson that we cannot enjoy civil and political rights unless we enjoy economic, cultural and social rights, anymore than we can insure our civil and political rights.  True, a hungry man does not have much freedom of choice.  But equally true, when a well fed man does not have freedom of choice, he cannot protect himself against going hungry.”  It is hard to find a more cogent defense for the  interdependence and indivisibility of human rights.  This reminds me as an economist that working for the eradication of poverty is more effective in reducing the drug menace or attaining peace in the marginalized regions of Mindanao.  It is not a coincidence that the highest rates of poverty (as high as 60 per cent of the population) are found in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

         Atty. Rene Sarmiento was one of those who drafted the Philippine Constitution of 1987.  He objectively points out that the basic source of human rights law in the Philippines is the 1987 Constitution.  It is rich in human rights content and constitutes a vast improvement on the previous Philippine Constitutions (i.e. 1899, 1935, 1973 and 1986 Freedom Constitution).  To quote from Chapter 2 of his book:  “A novel feature of the 1987 Constitution is the independent constitutional office called the Commission on Human Rights, one of the first national human rights commissions in the world.  Two of its important functions under Section 18, Article XIII of the 1987 Constitution are to investigate human rights violations involving civil and political rights either committed by the government or by non-government entities and to establish a program of education and information to enhance respect for the primacy of human rights.  This latter function will surely benefit from publications like the textbook of Atty. Sarmiento.  It should go beyond the classroom of law schools and should be required reading for all high school and college students, whatever their professional specializations.  In the same manner that economics education is required for enlightened citizenry, human rights education is necessary to build a culture that will institutionalize the respect for the dignity of every human being in the Philippines.  The book is available in any branch of REX Book Store.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.