Column: Human rights defenders are beautiful

Published on November 1, 2016.

Last week, fresh from his triumphant visit to Japan, President Duterte revealed, among other things, that God had talked to him about his cussing; but then he also let his disdain for human rights advocates slip out again. In one of those stream-of-consciousness free associations that punctuate his unscripted remarks, during his post-arrival news conference the President complimented the latest Filipino beauty queen, Miss International Kylie Verzosa, and then added a gratuitous insult.

Let me use ABS-CBN’s more complete version (but with my translation): “Of course, I am happy. I am always happy if our beautiful women win all the titles. Kasi Pilipino tayo [Because we are Filipino], it gives us konting hambog (a little to brag about). It lifts the [spirit.] Parang mayabang tayo. Kita mo, magaganda mga Pilipina [Like, we can be proud. You see, Filipinas are beautiful],” Mr. Duterte said. Then he said: “Pero kayong lahat diyan sa human rights commission, mga pangit (But all of you there at the Commission on Human Rights, you are all ugly).”

The President was his usual bantering self, and the unexpected punchline had many people laughing, but it is a mistake to think that he was also not dead earnest. Since the CHR, under then chair Leila de Lima, investigated him in 2009 for possible human rights violations in relation to the killings attributed to the so-called Davao Death Squad, he has harbored a sense of resentment against the constitutional agency.

Sometimes this sense breaks out in trademark Duterte fashion; he cracks jokes about it. In August 2015, when he visited the Inquirer, he regaled editors and reporters with his on-the-money mimicry of De Lima’s distinctive English, as he recalled it from their confrontation. He has made fun of De Lima and the human rights agenda on other occasions, and the unanticipated thrust at the CHR late Thursday night must be seen as more of the same—although this time he is taking aim at it because it has dared question the rising casualty toll in his so-called war on drugs.

At other times, this resentment reveals itself in less entertaining but also characteristic ways: He shames, and he threatens. He insults De Lima and denigrates the CHR and other critics, including US President Barack Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who are impertinent enough to raise concerns about possible human rights violations in the war on drugs. Confessed hitman Edgar Matobato’s disclosure of an aborted assassination attempt on De Lima’s life in 2009 is a piece of still-unverified information I am prepared to understand in this context, too.

Whether serious or funny, the President is wrong to undermine the work of the human rights agency in particular, and human rights advocates in general. I do not mean to suggest that HR advocates or even the CHR are above mistakes; I know that some journalists are investigating the circumstances of one CHR official who seems to have been willingly used as a deodorizer of human rights violations.

But we should all ask: What have human rights advocates done to deserve such hostility, such cavalier treatment, from the President?

Human rights advocates, including those identified with the National Democratic Front, including those who have served and are serving in the CHR, were among those who tried to hold the Marcos regime accountable during the dictatorship itself, and are among those leading the fight to bring the Marcos family to justice. Mr. Duterte’s own mother, who was a leader of the anti-Marcos movement in Davao City, would have recognized them as kindred spirits.

To meet their mandate, CHR officials and staff are weathering executive resistance and public apathy to hold a popular administration to account for its controversial war on drugs. They are joined by other advocates who are alarmed, not only by the rise in the number of slain innocents, but also by the impact that repeated human rights violations, including the casual taking of life, would have on society. Mr. Duterte’s own mother would have praised them.

A devout and disciplined Catholic, she would have understood the sacrifice these advocates made, in choosing the less lucrative, much more dangerous career of human rights work. I daresay she would have recognized in them the dignity, the beauty, of the saints: They are doing not only the right, but the beautiful, thing.


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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

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