“President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.,” said Human Rights Watch (HRW) Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson in a Sept. 28 statement, “just slapped victims of human rights abuses in the face with his appointment of a loyalist lawyer with no discernible experience in human rights work as new CHR chair.”
Robertson was referring to Richard Palpal-latoc, whose appointment as Chair of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), although signed in early September, was announced only on the 27th of the month. His description of Palpal-latoc as a “loyalist” is based on his being Marcos Jr.’s Deputy Executive Secretary when he was appointed to the CHR as one of his two choices to fill the vacancies in that Constitutional body. Like the new CHR Chair, the other Marcos appointee, a Beda Angeles Epres, has no background in human rights work either.
In his speech at the 17th United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20 (Sept. 21 in the Philippines — and the 50th anniversary of his father’s 1972 declaration of martial law) in New York City, Marcos Jr. agreed with the UN on the need for all countries to respect human rights, and praised the UN Joint Program on Human Rights as “an example of a constructive approach” to ending racism and prejudice.
But because of Marcos Jr.’s appointment of Palpal-latoc, Robertson dismissed those seeming indicators of respect for human rights as mere rhetoric. He noted that no human rights group or defender was consulted in the selection of the new CHR Chair. The Palpal-latoc appointment, he continued, therefore raises the question of whether Marcos Jr. “is embarking on a process to gut the CHR as an independent and impartial body empowered to investigate rights abuses without fear or favor of those in power.” Robertson concluded by saying that “Chairman Palpal-latoc will have a steep hill to climb to demonstrate that he deserves to sit in that chair, and that he knows up from down about the Philippines’ international commitments on human rights.”
The number and breadth of those commitments are considerable. They go back to the late 1940s when, as one of the first members of the United Nations, the Philippines was a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since then, the country has signed on to various covenants, conventions, treaties, and protocols for the defense and advancement of civil, social, political, cultural, and economic rights, as well as against gender, ethnic, and racial discrimination, slavery, unlawful imprisonment, cruel and unusual punishment, torture, and human trafficking, among many others.
But neither those international commitments nor the Philippines’ own laws, such as the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial, prevented the gross violations of human rights during the Marcos Sr. dictatorship and even the years prior to it. Among those violations were arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, cruel and degrading treatment, summary executions and extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances.
Together with the Bill of Rights and those provisions in the 1987 Constitution limiting the power of the President to declare and prolong martial rule, the creation of the Commission on Human Rights was among the means the drafters of that document saw as necessary in preventing the repetition of the gross human rights violations committed by the military and police thugs that kept the Marcos Sr. dictatorship in power from 1972 to 1986. (Marcos’ first term was in 1965, and his second in 1969. He was twice elected democratically, but declared martial law in 1972, and was thus President for a total of 21 years.)
Despite the Bill of Rights and the CHR, human rights abuses continued during the Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos, and Joseph Estrada regimes, with the most violations occurring during Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s nine-year occupation of Malacañang. Her term culminated in the record-breaking Nov. 23, 2009 Maguindanao Massacre which claimed the lives of 58 men and women, among them 32 journalists and media workers.
The number of abuses, including the killing of journalists, declined somewhat during the Benigno Aquino III presidency. But it surged to near-unprecedented levels during the Duterte regime, due mostly to, but not solely because of, its bloody “war on drugs.” Almost from Day One of his administration, President Rodrigo Duterte had also demonstrated in words and deeds his contempt for human rights, which he claimed are merely convenient shields for criminal behavior. At one point he described himself as “for human lives” rather than for human rights, as if extrajudicial killings were not violations of the fundamental right to life.
In 2017 Mr. Duterte declared in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) that the CHR should be abolished — which of course would have required a Constitutional amendment.
Nothing came of regime attempts to cripple the CHR. But to Mr. Duterte, it might as well have ceased to exist. Ignoring it completely, on a number of occasions he ordered the police and military to kill his and his regime’s perceived enemies, while promising to protect them from prosecution, in effect sanctifying the culture of impunity that has enabled even the worst wrong-doers to escape punishment.
During Mr. Duterte’s six years in office, neither Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch, the US State Department Report on Human Rights Practices, nor Philippine human rights groups ever ran out of accounts of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, massacres, physical assaults, torture, and other assaults against regime critics, lawyers, activists, journalists, and even human rights defenders despite the Constitution and the many international conventions, covenants, protocols, and treaties protecting them to which the Philippines is a signatory.
In its 2021 report on the Philippines, Amnesty International echoed the findings of other monitoring groups that human rights defenders, government critics, political activists, and even some politicians have been targeted for assassinations, harassment, and arbitrary arrest and detention. Indigenous Peoples (IPs) were also attacked, with some of them killed by government security forces and other assailants. AI correctly noted that lack of accountability — the exemption from punishment of wrongdoers, or the impunity so loudly sanctioned by the Duterte regime — encourages killings and other rights violations.
It is to the reversal, or just the mitigation of this dire human rights situation that the CHR can and should contribute. Without a background in human rights work, Chairman Palpal-latoc, so as to prove that he deserves the post for which he applied and has been appointed, has to very quickly acquaint himself with the abysmal state of human rights observance in the Philippines.
Even more urgent is for the CHR during his seven-year watch to more rigorously monitor and investigate the gross abuses that the six years of the Duterte regime have encouraged — and for him to urge government, particularly President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., to hold to account those responsible.
To paraphrase HRW’s Phil Robertson’s remarks, his doing so would help dispel fears that he has been charged with reducing the CHR into just another instrument in propagandizing the myth that human rights abuses are no more than the imaginings of enemies of the State and of criminal minds — as they supposedly were during the Marcos, Sr. dictatorship and as former President Rodrigo Duterte claimed them to be.
It is Chairman Palpal-latoc and his fellow commissioners’ burden to prove Robertson wrong. They would otherwise validate the latter’s view that his appointment is “a slap in the face” of the many victims and survivors of human rights violations in these isles of woe.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).