The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is expected to promote international understanding and defend Philippine sovereignty. It is also tasked with protecting Filipinos abroad. In its dealings with other countries, it is of course assumed that the DFA will enhance and defend Philippine interests through diplomatic means. But equally important is its affirmation in word and deed of the value and need for the country to honor its international commitments to human, civil and political rights.
None of those imperatives were served by the recent statement of the current DFA Secretary, Teodoro Locsin, Jr., that the Philippine Senate ratified the treaty making the Philippines a signatory to the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC) only to “accommodate” the late Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago so she could be an ICC judge.
In justifying the Philippine withdrawal from the ICC, Locsin also said that the ICC has “weaponized” human rights to defend the drug trade. It was in obvious reference to the prosecutor of that body’s decision to look into the possible accountability of President Rodrigo Duterte and other Philippine officials for crimes against humanity in connection with the killings in the regime’s “war” on illegal drugs.
If the rest of the world is listening, it shall have learned from no less than the country’s link to the international community that Philippine officialdom, particularly the Senate, makes decisions on whimsical bases rather than for the sake of national interest. That much is implicit in Locsin’s claim that the Senate ratified the treaty making the Philippines a signatory to the Rome Statute only to indulge one of its own members.
Locsin’s second statement not only accuses the ICC, which was created precisely to hold to account the worst violators of human rights on earth, of being an accomplice of drug traders. Echoing President Rodrigo Duterte’s statements alleging that human rights is being used as a shield for criminality, and that its defenders are criminals themselves, the DFA secretary was also reinforcing Mr. Duterte’s criminalization of human rights advocacy.
While one can understand Locsin’s continuing efforts at currying favor with his superior, his statements are completely at odds with what happened in 2000, in 2009 and 2011, as well as with the DFA’s traditions.
As media reports have pointed out, the Philippines was already a signatory to the Rome Statute in 2000. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed in 2009 the International Humanitarian Law bill mandating the Philippines’ implementation of the Statute. The Senate ratified the treaty in 2011.
Human rights advocacy is part of the traditions of what is now the DFA, which was founded in 1899 by the Emilio Aguinaldo revolutionary government. With Apolinario Mabini as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, its primary mandate was to gain international recognition of the First Philippine Republic. Mabini, one of the greatest minds produced by the reform and revolutionary movements, was charged with getting the rest of the world to acknowledge the Filipino right to independence and self-determination. The defeat of the Republic in the Philippine-American War put an end to that aspiration, with Mabini exiled in Guam.
The restoration of Philippine independence in 1946 led to the Philippines’ being one of the first signatories to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. Through the DFA, which has been headed by, among others, such stalwarts of democracy as Salvador P. Lopez, the Philippines had since signed other international covenants protective of human, civil and political rights.
But while the UDHR and other protocols to which the Philippines is a signatory commit the country and its government to the observance of such fundamentals as the right to life, liberty and personal security; the right to free expression; freedom of opinion and information; the right to education; freedom of assembly; the right to equality before the law; freedom from arbitrary arrest and exile; the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty; the right to due process; and freedom from torture and degrading treatment, human rights have nevertheless been under siege in the Philippines.
Peasants were massacred by State forces from the late 1940s to the 1950s as part of the government’s war against the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (HMB). A “crime” called “rebellion complex,” which added to the penalty for rebellion the penalties for the crimes of arson, rape, illegal possession of firearms and kidnapping, was fabricated by the government to prolong the imprisonment of, and to sentence to death, those accused of taking up arms against it.
Picket lines by workers on strike for better pay and working conditions were frequently attacked, the picketers dispersed, the workers fired, and their leaders accused of various crimes.
The torture of suspected criminals by security forces as a means of extracting information and confessions was, and still is, a common practice.
Free expression, the right to information, and the freedom to hold opinions were constantly under threat, in one instance leading to the persecution of University of the Philippines professors for expressing opinions on public issues, and for publishing in a learned journal a document on the peasant struggle for land.
Also in the 1970s, several student and political activists were abducted and forcibly disappeared. From the late 1960s until the declaration of martial law which banned free assembly, rallies, labor strikes and demonstrations were also frequently dispersed, often violently, resulting in injuries and a number of deaths.
When in 1972 Ferdinand Marcos issued Presidential Proclamation 1081 placing the entire country under martial law, the number of human rights violations — arbitrary arrests and detention without charges, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, the denial of due process, among others — escalated.
The Marcos dictatorship was overthrown in 1986 at EDSA. But its end did not put a stop to human rights violations. In the administrations that succeeded it — the Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and Benigno Aquino III regimes — extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture continued. The Macapagal-Arroyo record was the worst since the Marcos dictatorship with the murder of over 2,000 political and social activists and of 32 journalists and media workers in one incident.
But the regime of President Rodrigo Duterte has outdone that sorry record, with 4,540 killings admitted by the police in the course of its selective, anti-poor “war” on drugs, petty crimes and even “tambay” (loiterers), with over 25,000 deaths still “under investigation.” The DFA has justified the killings before the international community, and has also condoned China’s occupation and militarization of the West Philippine Sea, which has denied Filipino fisher folk access to the fishing grounds that are theirs by right.
The whole of Mindanao is under martial law, and the scene of such egregious human rights violations as massacres, the extrajudicial killing of Lumad and Moro leaders, and the military occupation of schools and entire communities that denies children and young people their right to education.
These are occurring because Mr. Duterte has openly expressed his contempt for human rights, while his keyboard army of trolls cranks out a tsunami of false information and incites violence against journalists and regime critics.
Under these circumstances human rights defenders need all the support and encouragement available to stop not only the violation of such rights as those to life and due process, but also the demonization, harassment and criminalization of human rights activists themselves. Obviously, however, the possibility that even some agencies of government, such as the Department of Foreign Affairs, would at the very least affirm the value and necessity of upholding the country’s many international commitments to human rights compliance has very demonstrably become a forlorn hope since July, 2016. What then is the DFA good for if the most we can expect of it is to defend the regime that’s in power and excuse Chinese aggression?
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).