Human rights and the poor

Scan the Constitution and you will find the concept of human rights at the center of that expansive document—a veritable fixed compass that orients citizens to the limits of governmental power.  When it was ratified, no one asked if these rights are inherent in all human beings, or whether, for example, criminals can be considered human.  As far as the Constitution’s framers were concerned, these rights have a rational basis and are unconditional.

It is not difficult to imagine, however, that not everyone would agree. Some say belief in human rights is like belief in God, purely a matter of faith.  But, isn’t faith invoked even more when a president says: Trust me, I know what I am doing?

Human rights, like the presidency, need not be defended primarily on metaphysical grounds.  Indeed, we can and should ask whether human rights are useful to the community, as compared to, let us say, demanding unquestioning conformity as a basis for social cohesion.  By the same token, we should ask whether an administration’s preferred method of dealing with a social problem like illegal drugs is better than other available methods.

It would seem at first glance that President Duterte subscribes to a pragmatic view of human rights. At his recent State of the Nation Address, he said: “Human rights must work to uplift human dignity.  But human rights cannot be used as a shield or an excuse to destroy the country—your country and my country.”  This statement strikes me as fundamentally metaphysical, and far from being pragmatic in the philosophical sense.

The view it represents puts the assertion of the right to due process on the defensive. It privileges the security of the State over the security of the individual person. Whereas, human rights encompass a wide range of rights—legal, political, economic, and cultural, etc.—Mr Duterte puts first priority on the people’s right to security and material welfare.  Why can’t a suspected offender’s basic constitutional right to presumption of innocence be considered as vital to his/her dignity as the material requirements for a dignified existence?

I think the most persuasive answer that has been given to that question is: Because in a society like ours with a flawed justice system, criminal suspects tend to escape responsibility by exploiting the weaknesses of legal procedure.  Other reasons—as commonsensical as the first—have been put forward.  In defense, for instance, of a shoot-to-kill order on suspected drug offenders, it has been argued that this approach, as harsh as it may be, is more efficient and more expedient.

Despite the fact that the victims of summary killings have been mostly suspected drug users and pushers from poor communities—precisely the kind of people who do not have the connections and the means to hire good defense lawyers—the fiction is maintained that it is human rights rather than unequal power that has served as a shield to evade responsibility.

To understand how human rights in our society are unequally allocated and enjoyed, one need only revisit the comic irony of seeing Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr. of Albuera town in Leyte, a suspected drug lord, take refuge at the official residence of the chief of the Philippine National Police for fear of being shot on sight if he dared go home.  Not one of the pushers who had been shot in the slums in connection with the ongoing war against drugs would have imagined doing that.

The poor suffer from many disabilities, and not the least of these is precisely their lack of access to the kind of humane treatment routinely given to those at the top of the social hierarchy.  It was for this very reason that President Ramon Magsaysay, that man of the masses, made it the abiding principle of his administration that those who have less in life must have more in law.

This is exactly what makes us proud as a nation—that, despite our poverty, we commit ourselves to look after the most vulnerable among us, those who are least able to protect or defend themselves against abuse.  It is by this self-image that we measure our conduct as a community.  We may not believe—as many constitutionalists do—that human rights override all considerations of national security or political necessity.  But one thing is certain: We cannot remain unperturbed by daily reports of the vicious killings of impoverished Filipinos who clearly occupy the lowest rungs of the drug trade, even as the more privileged suspected drug lords are given the chance to clear and defend themselves before a court of law.

Even if President Duterte has issued shoot-to-kill orders on suspected drug lords, and has not hesitated to publicly shame narco-politicians and police officers who are engaged in the drug trade, the reality is that such personalities can always find a way to submit to the authorities to avoid being killed. In contrast, most of those who have been killed in this war did not have that option because of their poverty.

All this makes one wonder if the absence of a loud public outcry over these rampant murders does not somehow mirror our own stereotyped images of the urban poor—i.e., of how twisted their values are, of how easily they trade hard work for the fleeting pleasures of drugs and intoxication, of how they cynically invoke joblessness to justify their forays into petty crime, etc. Is it a crime against humanity to wipe out such people from the face of the earth?  Our collective silence would seem to confirm the view that it is not.