Published on February 13, 2018.
At the launch of the Rule of Law Index in Washington, DC the other week, forum moderator Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace asked a crucial question. In those countries like Venezuela and the Philippines where adherence to the rule of law has weakened (as measured according to the Index’s eight factors), which institutions were “pushing back”? In my answer, I distinguished between institutions that are pushing back and institutions that are “holding fast” (including a military which abhors the vacuum of politicization and a Roman Catholic Church which, despite its efforts to engage the government policy agenda, is seen by Duterte supporters as anti-Duterte).
What do I understand by pushing back? It might be best to cite specific examples.
I share the sense of many that Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales is a true profile in courage. It is her cutting candor that Filipinos find both refreshing and inspiring. For instance, last September, in response to an extraordinary provocation from President Duterte, she issued a statement that was shared widely and discussed avidly. After the President threatened to have her office—the government’s primary graft-busting agency—investigated for “partiality,” she replied thus: “Sorry, Mr. President, but this Office shall not be intimidated.” She ended her statement with a sentence that recalled the line Mr. Duterte and his allies often use, but in a subtle tables-are-turned way: “The President’s announcement that he intends to create a commission to investigate the Ombudsman appears to have to do with this Office’s ongoing investigation into issues that involve him.” Then the clincher: “This Office, nonetheless, shall proceed with the probe, as mandated by the Constitution. If the President has nothing to hide, he has nothing to fear.”
But if all she did was issue no-nonsense statements, Morales would not be the commanding authority figure that she is. But she has a formidable reputation as a lawyer, a sterling career as a justice of the Supreme Court, and an impressive work ethic that has enabled her to dramatically reduce the Ombudsman’s caseload. It will be a dark day when, at her constitutionally mandated retirement in July, she will be replaced by a legal goon like Solicitor General Jose Calida.
The chair of the Commission on Human Rights, lawyer and Charter framer Chito Gascon, is, like the Ombudsman, someone who has reaped a bitter harvest of presidential abuse because he dares to do his constitutional duty. The public outrage that erupted when a petulant House of Representatives voted to grant the CHR a P1,000 budget was a response in part to the rhetorical beating the President had administered on Gascon; the symbolic sum (about $20) was an insult, a calling of names through other means.
Gascon has stood his ground, and continues to put his agency’s meager budget (since restored) on the frontline of human rights protection.
Other profiles in courage include:
Some members of the Supreme Court, who place duty to the Constitution above loyalty to the President. At a time when pivotal Court rulings are characterized by compromised reasoning, they serve as witnesses to the grand ideal of the law as reason prevailing over force.
Journalists like Maria Ressa, who have worked to “hold the line” against state-sponsored or -inspired attacks on press freedom. The Democracy and Disinformation Conference ongoing at the Ateneo de Manila’s Rockwell campus shows that there are many like her, working closely with bloggers, scholars, and members of civil society.
And Sen. Leila de Lima, who will mark a year in detention next week; in a macho culture that likes to make an example (“sampol,” colloquially), she is the primary proof of what the Duterte administration’s weaponization of the rule of law can achieve. Her letters from jail show her spirit is unbroken, her mind undimmed, her will undaunted.
But these examples (and there are many others) also show the limits of the pushback: Little of it is institution-based. Most of it is individual-driven. This is not to say that there are no organizations or movements working to defend the democratic project—I can attest that there are, involving sectors from concerned students to frustrated businessmen; and of course the CHR is an agency and Rappler is an organization—but only that at this stage of the political cycle, much of the burden is borne by individuals. The next stage is collective pushback.