The Sandiganbayan’s defining moment

In denying the release of $150 million from the $590 million disputed Marcos funds to compensate the Marcos regime’s human rights victims, Sandiganbayan Presiding Justice Francis Garchitorena took the risk of being called an enemy of human rights.  All that he wants is to prevent corrupt people from getting away with their crime.

“Does he have no heart for the miserable families of the human rights victims,” asks Rep. Etta Rosales, who heads Claimants 1081 that represents some of the 9,539 victims of human rights violations.  Her despair is understandable: more than 12 years have passed since they filed their class suit against Marcos before a court in Hawaii.  A favorable ruling by that court had granted them total compensation of nearly $2 billion.  But the judgment could not readily be satisfied in view of the difficulty and expense entailed in identifying and tracking down the Marcos hidden wealth.

No one knows still how much the Marcos wealth is worth and where it is hidden.  The $590 million now kept in escrow at the Philippine National Bank represents only the funds kept by various Marcos foundations in different Swiss bank accounts.  It is reasonable to think there is more stashed away in other Swiss accounts or in banks in some remote part of the world.   Until that money is found, the human rights claimants will have to wait.

They cannot wait forever.  Some have died; most of them are destitute.  Though no amount of compensation can possibly bring a just closure to their lives, their families would certainly benefit from even a small payment from the Marcos estate.  They would be able to pay for needed hospitalization, or send their children to school.  The share of $150 million they seek from the escrow funds is but a fraction of the $2 billion compensation awarded them by the Hawaii court.  It is almost an insult.  But, as President Estrada put it in his recent State of the Nation Address, “we can persist in the pursuit of an ideal solution that is likely to lead to nothing, or we can settle  for a practical solution that can result in something.”

The President persuaded the Marcos family to agree to this compromise settlement even as the ownership of the funds continues to be disputed.  In signing the agreement, the family viewed the settlement as an act of benevolence and reconciliation.  There is no admission of guilt.  On the contrary, they insisted on a provision in the agreement that releases them from any accountability for human rights violations committed under the Marcos regime.  “We should leave all of this behind because it is an unfinished business from the past generation,” says Imee Marcos, who inherited her late father’s congressional district in Ilocos Norte.

The Sandiganbayan judgment was properly formulated in legalistic terms, but the resources it was tapping were moral and political as well.  It refused to view the issue as a problem begging for a solution, preferring to treat it instead as an occasion to define some truths.

In the first place, said the Court, the ownership of the money is not settled.  If it is ill-gotten, then the government must confiscate it, and decide according to law how to use it.  If the Marcoses have a legal and moral obligation to pay the human rights victims, it must do so with their own money.  “None of the Marcoses is living in any demonstrable degree of poverty.”

On the other hand, the Court argued, if it is proven that the money belongs to the Marcoses and its origins are not illegal, then it is not for the government to give it away.  There is a pending forfeiture case on the Marcos wealth.  In the meantime, “there is no statutory or constitutional justification for the release of the $150 million now in escrow to pay the judgment debt of the Marcos estate.”

The decision of the Sandiganbayan sounds smug and callously legalistic.  But in a sentence that seems almost like an afterthought, it announced the moral premise that clearly underpins its decision: “Furthermore, the Republic cannot compensate its own citizens for the grave injury done to them and then release from any liability the one or the ones responsible for that grave injury.”

There are limits indeed to what a nation can do to solve its practical problems.  What the moral philosopher Charles Taylor says about persons applies to nations:  “In the end, what we are called on to do is not just carry out isolated acts, each one being right, but to live a life, and that means to be and become a certain kind of human bein. To throw oneself into winning the result alone, as though it did not matter what kind of human one might become, is an act of hubris, a leap beyond the vulnerable human condition.”

Taylor calls it the capacity for “a certain reverence” for the whole sphere of life, for what we are striving to become as human beings. There are times when a decision with the best practical consequences collides with our deepest notion of what we want to be – these are the moments when our self-image feels most threatened, and so we choose to be “impractical.”   Perhaps if we were more sure of ourselves, and not in need of self-definition, we would have no problem arriving at a pragmatic solution on the Marcos wealth.

But nothing in the last 13 years has helped assure us that we are a people capable of punishing those who looted and abused the nation while they were in power.  That is why we can sympathize with the Sandiganbayan’s isolated act of defiance against practicality, even if it means mocking the agony of the victims who have long waited to be touched by justice’s comforting hands.



Charles Taylor, “Leading a Life,” in Incommensurability, Incompatibility, and Practical Reason, edited by Ruth Chang, Harvard University Press, 1997.


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