Maglana: A letter to Sachi and Raz on human rights

Mags Z. Maglana

DEAR Sachi and Raz,

I am writing this because with the state of observance of human rights or HR in the Philippines these days I worry about the impressions your generation is forming about it.

Between the unlimited menu of distraction dished out by Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, and your other youthful interests, I thought a letter might stand a better chance of getting read and understood—although I probably should make that hope more realistic with the qualifier “in time.”

You have witnessed how Filipinos are being offered a false dichotomy between supporting government—or more precisely the President—and standing up for HR. It is a choice that one need not make because there is no contest. Concern for HR goes beyond who heads government, and more about whether an administration is doing what it ought to as HR duty bearers.

However, the dominant narratives play up the old divides: destabilizing dilawans (in my youth it was “reds”) who use human rights (HR) violations as part of their arsenal against elected government.

The argument that human rights are passé is getting to be irksome. First because the claim that HR is outmoded is being made in the face of massive civil and political rights violations occurring in the crusade against illegal drugs and counter-terrorism. Second because the criticisms against HR parrot the anti-communism drivel of the past. And third because many of those who use that line are in positions of privilege, and do not acknowledge it out of convenience or simply because they are blind to it.

Are human rights out-of-date because the relationship between the State and citizens have transformed so much that the latter no longer needs protection from the former, as seems to be the case under President Rodrigo Duterte from the perspective of his supporters? Or have they become “obsolete” because by the actions and pronouncements of people associated with the State, it seems they are no longer honored?

Be wary when elite and tyrannical forces do all they can to dissuade citizens from upholding rights. Chances are it is not because they want to advance HR discourse to a new level, or to foment political growth and maturity. Historically, those who benefit from an uncritical citizenry routinely charm and disarm people, or keep them in a state of ignorance or confusion.

Periodically, someone muddles the discussion by accusing that advocates do not cry “HR violations!” when civilians are harmed by other civilians, specifically in situations involving illegal drugs. In such cases the rights of harmed civilians clearly have been abused; and these HR abuses are crimes that have to be justly resolved by law enforcers.

But attention must be given to illegal acts committed against civilians by the State through government and its agents because they involve the very parties who bear the duty of promoting, protecting and fulfilling human rights. Thus, the rationale for institutions like the Commission on Human Rights, which are dedicated to ensuring that the State does not violate its mandate, and exacting justice from its agents that do.

Rather than conclude that human rights are no longer relevant because they are misunderstood by the public anyway, the challenge is to be more effective in HR education and to connect better to ever-changing realities.

Illegal arrests, acts of torture and censorship, among others account for the emphasis on civil and political rights during the Marcos dictatorship. However, more recent education efforts have failed in drawing connections between the socio-economic and cultural aspirations and struggles of communities, and the rights that underpin them. HR is very much at the heart of our daily aspirations for survival and wellbeing.

You probably remember that hilarious Facebook post on how to drive home the point about the excesses of the Marcos dictatorship to the youth of today using parallelisms like demanding that the lines to “May Bagong Silang” be sung from memory before being given the Wi-Fi password, and then capriciously changing the password every day. We had a good laugh about it but I think you got the point that your generation has to draw up HR education approaches that work for you.

Elites and tyrants use rhetoric, claiming that extreme measures are meant to save future generations. However, their main motivation is to wield power for as long as possible. What gives them away are the ruthlessness with which they undermine laws and institutions that check against their powers, and the haste in which they enter into arrangements that consolidate and institutionalize their interests.

That being said, we respect your generation’s option and trust in your capacity to discern about institutions that best serve and represent the future you want.

Please do not forget: that which will differentiate the genuine revolutionaries from the elites and tyrants of your age is respect for national and international HR consensuses reached during your time. The former would find ways of carrying them out against all odds; the latter would discard them when expedient. Guess who benefits when citizens readily concede rights?

I hope you would be part of your generation’s struggles for human rights.

Love always,

Tita Mags


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