Chairperson Loretta Ann P. Rosales
Guest of Honor and Commencement Speaker
Laoag City, Ilocos Norte
April 9, 2011
Dr. Caesar Agnir, President of this illustrious college,
Members of the faculty and staff,
Dearest graduates and your families,
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
Naimbag nga rabii kadakayo amin.
In behalf of the Commission on Human Rights, I would like to applaud the graduating Class of 2011 of Northern Christian College. I feel very grateful for this privilege of speaking before you today as you receive your hard-earned degrees and qualifications. Let me express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Agnir for graciously extending to me this wonderful opportunity to touch base with the academic community in NCC as it celebrates 65 years of building better lives in Northern Luzon and in the rest of the country. Agyamanak unay!
We live in an interesting time, a time of great promise. Last year, the nation was in the midst of a campaign for change. People of all ages and from all walks of life yearned for true reforms, not just a cosmetic change in the top. After a decade of living under a regime that tolerated, even abetted, a culture of impunity, fear and silence, we the people hungered for a just and more caring society – one that upheld the rule of law not for the sake of those who make, implement and bend the law for their own purposes, but for the common good, in order that all persons, regardless of sex, gender, race, status or belief, may be able to have a fair chance of pursuing for themselves and their posterity, the blessings of independence and democracy.
And true enough, God's voice was heard through the people's choices. We elected as President whose pedigree was unassailably ingrained in the popular struggle for democratic rule. In his inauguration, the President repeatedly acknowledged the true source of his mandate, and affirming its borrowed nature, hailed the people – each one of us – as his boss. People power has once again moved to the center of decision-making, which is a far cry from the fiercely oligarchic attitudes dominant in the previous administration.
Renewed emphasis on the centrality of the human person in the social development equation has resulted in the mainstreaming of human rights in almost every facet of government. Starting off from in economic planning, the human rights based approach (HRBA) is now being operationalized in other aspects of development programming, from the internal peace operations of the security sector, to law enforcement, to health and social services, to housing, to education, even military intelligence gathering. Human rights has once again become a positive buzzword, slowly casting off its negative associations with radical communism and political obstructionism.
I mentioned all these for no other purpose but to draw your attention to larger context within which you, dear graduates and friends in the community, are situated. Gross violations of human rights still litter the landscape. Cases of criminality – the quintessential source of human rights violations – invariably surface in our daily lives. In the media, entire time blocks or programming segments have been devoted to a daily litany of unlawful and arbitrary deprivations of life, property and liberty. This has been the situation for as far as I can remember – a pretty long frame of reference given my age and experience – which obtains not only in the Philippines but in other countries as well. The only difference between the Philippine context and the rest is that in the Philippines, crimes tend to go unpunished, investigations almost always get bungled, and the real violators have more than equal chance to evade liability altogether. Some of them even get elected to Congress or the Senate. Crime, it seems, not only pays in the Philippines, it profits as well.
Nevertheless, the advent of a new administration has brought renewed vigor in the fight for development anchored on human rights, not so different from that magical feeling we felt twenty-five years ago in the aftermath of the world's first peaceful revolution. The only difference between today's people power and that which happened in EDSA in 1986, is the maturation of the concept of freedom from a simplistic understanding based on formal equality to one with a deeper meaning and a wider scope. Freedom today is no longer just about freedom from arbitrary, illegal and corrupt measures that deprive us of our political and civil attributes. Freedom as we conceive it today is freedom from hunger, sickness and an early death brought about by social exclusion, marginalization and exploitation. Freedom as we exercise it today is not so much the freedom to belong but the freedom to be. It is all about claiming dignity.
The Commission on Human Rights where I serve as Chairperson is deeply immersed in this paradigm shift. Created in 1987 as a Constitutional office empowered to investigate, on its own or on complaint by any party, all forms of human rights violations involving civil and political rights, the CHR has been slow to respond to the economic and social gaps that have plagued Philippine society since time immemorial. The framers of the Constitution had envisioned the CHR as some sort of mechanism to realize justice for the thousands of victims of abuses under dictatorial rule as the Philippines transitioned to democratic rule. The fixation of the Constitution's framers on civil and political violations is thus explained by their own background as civil rights lawyers who fought Martial Rule. Unfortunately, as a result of the Supreme Court's ruling in Simon v. CHR, the growth of understanding within the legal profession, and within government as well, in regard to human rights law has been stunted. Even within the Commission on Human Rights, staff attorneys have been observed to undergo severe difficulty resolving environmental and indigenous rights cases.
This is slowly changing. In its most recent operational plan, the CHR is seeking to unify its investigation (of civil and political rights violations) and monitoring (of State compliance with all international human rights treaties) powers under the concept of comprehensive monitoring. It is aiming to evolve a system of determining government compliance with human rights treaties in the execution of executive, legislative, judicial and other government functions, systems and processes with the end in view of harmonizing them with the standards and principles of human rights and recommending appropriate measures and actions. These include, for examples, the harmonization of domestic laws, national legislation with human rights treaties, e.g. migrant workers and conducting investigation of HRVs with due attention to possible non-compliance with HR standards of actions taken or not taken with respect to the victim, the accused, the investigator and even the prosecutor. In other words, the CHR is going to investigate in order to monitor, and monitors to investigate, under a broad human rights framework.
Two weeks ago, I was keynote speaker in the launching by the National Economic Development Authority and the United Nations Development Program of an HRBA Toolkit designed to operationalize human rights standards and principles in the development planning process undertaken by economic planners. I saw this and countless other engagement as an opportunity to spread the good news to the movers and shakers of the broader governance machinery that human rights principles and standards can offer a firmer and more stable foundation for our collective efforts to eradicate poverty and end the marginalization and exclusion of vulnerable groups in Philippine society.
I advert to Northern Christian College's motto, “The Institution for Better Life”, to draw a positive correlation with the CHR's own motto, “Karapatang Pantao, Likas sa Atin, Pagyamanin Natin”. Building a just and humane requires a revolution of ideas and practice, starting from the simple act of recognizing that poverty is a human rights violation. Rights-based development starts from an ethical position that all people are entitled to live their lives with dignity. Fundamental conceptions of human dignity have to be understood as functions neither of welfare nor charity, but of the dynamic interplay of rights and duties in a society riddled with structural inequities. Poverty-stricken people are to be seen not as passive beneficiaries, or statistical targets, but as active partners and collaborators in all stages of programming for development. In short, a better life, a life without hunger, without fear, without want, without coercion, is an entitlement for all and not a privilege of a few.
The Bible says that man was created by God in his own image. The Methodist theologian J. Robert Nelson has argued that “concern for the integrity, worth, and dignity of persons is the basic presupposition of human rights”, which in turn is anchored on three freedoms – "freedom of conscience, freedom from unjust exploitation or oppression, and freedom to live a properly human life.” Thus, the World Council of Churches had declared that
Human dignity is therefore inherent to all individuals. Human rights are not ends in themselves, but the conditions for the realization of human dignity. Since all dimensions of human dignity are considered, economic, social and cultural rights are stressed to the same extent as civil and political rights. Therefore the church must make a preferential option for the poor, rather than giving primacy to individual freedoms over, or even at the expense of, basic human necessities.
The Lutheran theologians Tödt and Huber further defined human rights in terms of the three concepts of freedom, equality and participation, and drew analogies between the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights instruments with the “essential terms of the Gospel by which all persons should be able to live."
Jürgen Moltmann used different set of three fundamental principles: "liberation by Jesus Christ, creation in the image of God, and hope in the coming Reign of God”, and described human dignity as the reason for God's activity in human history, thus “recreating in Christ the persons who were first created in the divine image, and providing them hope, despite privation and suffering, for liberation of life in society to its fulfillment in God's purpose”.
In the Catholic tradition, on the other hand, human rights are seen as the conditions for human dignity.His Holiness, Pope John XXIII in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris wrote approvingly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as a document where
...in most solemn form, the dignity of a human person is acknowledged in all men. And as a consequence there is proclaimed, as a fundamental right, the right of free movement in the search for truth and in the attainment of moral good and of justice, and also the right to a dignified life, while other rights connected with those mentioned are likewise proclaimed.
In his encyclical, the Pope also prayed for the day "when every human being will find therein an effective safeguard for the rights which derive directly from his dignity as a person, and which are therefore universal, inviolable and inalienable rights."
Human dignity and human rights are therefore not closely intertwined as theological concepts, they also find ecumenical expression in the different Christian traditions. I am very confident that given your education in Northern Christian College, you will enter the world with this germ of an idea – that human rights is an indispensable means of fulfilling God's promise of redemption for his creation.
In this light, let me share with you some additional principles that I hope you can apply in your own quests to build a better life for yourselves, your families and your communities. These are drawn from the United Nations Common Understanding on the Human Rights-Based Approach to Development –
Interdependence, indivisibility and inalienability
The principle of inalienability entail that every woman, man and child is entitled to enjoy her or his human rights simply by virtue of being human; the right cannot be given up or taken away. Indivisibility and interdependence imply that all human rights are equally important and equally essential to ensure the respect, dignity and worth of every individual and that the realization of one right will depend on the realization of others.
Empowerment and Participation
The principles of empowerment and participation entitles all people to participate actively and meaningfully in society to the maximum of their potential. Participation is thus not only a method to ensure ownership and sustainability in development, but also implies empowerment and public participation.
Equality and Non-Discrimination
The principles of equality and non-discrimination are among the most basic tenets in the human rights framework, obliging us to recognize that all individuals are equal as human beings and by virtue of their inherent dignity. It demands that all human beings are entitled to their human rights without discrimination on grounds such as race, colour, sex, gender, ethnicity, age, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, disability, property, birth or other status in law and in practice in any field regulated by law.
Accountability within the human rights framework focuses especially on the accountability of duty-bearers towards rights-holders and demands on the state to be answerable for the observance of human rights and to comply with standards, laws and policies. Where states fail to do so, means that enable rights- holders to seek and obtain redress should be available. Adherence to the principle of accountability should also be demanded from any development actor whose actions have an impact on the rights of people. Measures for accountability must be accessible, transparent and effective.
With the guiding principles of the human rights-based approach and its advantages largely defined, the challenge now is on how to translate this into practice. Thus, I pose this as a challenge to every one of your dear graduates of Northern Christian College, to think of the beauty of the human rights as a framework for empowering those vulnerable and discriminated against to claim their rights, and for strengthening accountability and capacity of legal and moral duty-bearers, within a broad context that considers the social, cultural, resource, political and historical dimensions of poverty.
Use the vigor of your youth to internalize human rights as an ethical system, as an expression of your Christian development. Use it as a tool for communicating your ideas, for translating them into action and for spreading the good news of hope and liberation. It is your sector of society that has the greatest capacity for fomenting an unstoppable of avalanche of support for the primacy of human dignity in all times, whatever the circumstances are.
I would always look back to this day, where in the heart of Ilocandia, home of sturdy folk who have proven time and again to be masters over the harshness of nature, I was given the opportunity to concretize our Christian faith in your individual faith experiences, ever hopeful that the paths you have all chosen all would lead to the restoration of man as God's beloved creation.
My warmest congratulations to you all.
Agyaman-ak. Dios ti agngina.