23 March 2017
Message at the 16th National Convention of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines
Pasay, 23 March 2017
I am honored to be part of this gathering and to speak with you about our role as lawyers in defending our dignity and our freedoms. No matter what side we find ourselves in, in whatever fight we choose, it is fascinating that we lawyers can come together in an occasion such as this and always find something in common: our love for the law.
These are extraordinary times. Here and around the world, democracy is in crisis and people of different countries are challenging the very existence of old institutions. Do you notice how peace seems to be so precious these days, as you read the news or watch television? The world seems to be a cauldron of hate and wars, conflict and abuse, fake news and post-truths? Where is law and government in all these? We, as lawyers, are in a unique position to restore the public’s confidence and faith in the system of law and government. To do that, it is our obligation to make sure the law cannot be monopolized and used for abuse.
As the words “disruption” and “planned chaos” gain traction, humanity seems to be forgetting one thing: That social order is a value. Peace is not just the absence of conflict or street crimes. Peace requires stronger instiutions, the preservation of dignity, tand he freedom to speak dissent. People cannot point to deserted streets and say that’s peace when we know better.
At best, that is false security. The challenge is to reclaim the narrative of genuine security. To iterate that it is not one-dimensional, only concerned with the absence of crimes. The challenge is about upholding the quality of life which is realized by the protection of our freedoms.
According to the 2016 Rule of Law Index by the World Justice Project, the factors adversely affecting our country’s experience of the rule of law the most are problems related to fundamental rights, and civil and criminal justice.
When it comes to safeguarding citizens’ rights, we are ranked only 70th out of 113 countries. And among the fundamental rights included in the study, the right to life and security is the least protected.
Unreasonable delays in the resolution of court cases has the worst impact on our civil justice, civil and criminal justice, civil justice [inaudible]. And under criminal justice, the Index found that we especially lack an effective correctional system and protection against discrimination.
In 2012, Justice Antonio Carpio reported that 21% of trials took two to five years to finish while 13% took more than five. This is far from the Constitution’s prescription for cases to be resolved within 24 months for the Supreme Court, 12 months for lower collegiate courts, and three months for lower courts.
Five years later, our judiciary is still struggling with slow processes, and heavy caseloads for prosecutors and judges. The Judiciary still gets less than 2% of the national budget despite its crucial role in preserving justice. As Justice Carpio said, “Judicial reform is too important to fail.” Individual liberties and social order rely on the efficiency of our justice system.
Justice delivered late cannot save a man from death, abuse, or suffering. Justice must be swift if it is to work and be meaningful.
The success of the transformation of our justice system is only one part of the equation. It would only be as good as the value people find in accessing it at all. Thus, at the core of legal empowerment is the confidence of citizens to assert their rights.
Such confidence is characterized by three things. First, Filipinos must be aware of what the laws are, what rights they are entitled to, and what due process entails.
Second, they must have the assurance that the law treats everyone equally. The protection of human rights does not have a caveat of age, sexual orientation, or socio-economic standing. The rights of the poor will never be less valuable than those of the rich.
Third, there must be an avenue for citizens to demand respect for their rights and pursue justice. Democracy has no room for tactics to silence dissenters. Institutions such as the Commission on Human Rights must be strengthened.
These three elements are necessary for legal empowerment, the essence is making the law meaningful for the ordinary Filipino, even and especially the last, the least, and the lost.
At the most basic level, our Constitution already gives us a sound foundation for legal empowerment. Article 13 is dedicated to social justice and human rights. It is clear that the highest priority must be given to the enactment of measures for the protection of human rights and the eradication of inequality.
Three decades later, after its writing, provisions protecting different sectors have yet to be given teeth through legislation. For instance, it explicitly calls for the just distribution of all agricultural land. Yet, back in 2007, the Sumilao farmers had to march from Mindanao to Manila to demand agrarian justice and reclaim their ancestral land. The march was an admirable gesture that showed the resilience of people fighting for what is right. However, we must not make a habit of placing such a burden on our citizens, especially the poor, when the most basic document of our democracy has made the responsibilities of the State clear.
The provision for affordable housing and basic services for homeless citizens was written in 1987. But when I was HUDCC Chief, I found out that there was a 5.7M backlog in houses that needed to be built by the government. There were 27 requirements and steps that must be taken before a company can even begin socialized housing projects. No wonder it takes a while before the first bag of cement for a housing project can be bought and used. We pushed to reduce the 27 requirements to as low as nine before I left. I hope they continue to adopt it.
Sections 15 and 16 of the Constitution call for spaces for people participation and adequate consultation. Yet, it has been a struggle to pass the People Empowerment Bill, which I filed when I was still a member of the House of Representatives.
Section 19, Article 10, also calls for local sectoral representation, but we know that until now, no law has been passed to make this happen.
The Comission of Human Rights and the CBCP for leading initiatives for human rights awareness. The campaigns they plan to conduct in churches and communities feature a human rights module to inform people of the courses of action they can take in defense of their rights. Among the stakeholders tapped for this initiative are members of the academe and lawyers’ groups. These campaigns require extraordinary courage at a time when the words “Human Rights”have been given an entirely new meaning. As if human rights were distasteful things and those who work to defend it are doing a disservice to our nation.
Unfortunately, knowledge of the law doesn’t always prevent abuses. This is why the only way for us to survive these dark times is to survive it together. If we study the history of humanity, we will see that it is only when human connection reaches the right depth when we recognize the inherent value of each other’s liberties. After two world wars, we reached a prime conclusion enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”
It is a truth we would benefit from remembering.
Sadly, today, we seem to be doing the exact opposite. I wonder when we started forsaking that truth? At what point did we begin to regress into the mindset that we can take the freedom of others into our own hands? The common denominator for the abuse of these regulations is poverty. If we as a people redirect our political will and resources to long-lasting solutions for poverty instead of the more divisive wars we are waging now, no one loses.
When I took my oath as Vice President, and when the President took his, we vowed to defend the Constitution and to do justice to every man. My commitment to fight for the rights of the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised as an human rights lawyer before, only strengthened when this position was given to me by the people. Every week since my oath-taking in July, exactly 33 weeks by today, I replaced office attire for regular street clothes to go to the farthest and poorest municipalities in the country and see with my own eyes, and hear with my own ears, the plight of our people. Yesterday, we just arrived from Barangay Udalo in Piagapo, Lanao del Sur, from Tangcal, Lanao del Norte, from Dayawan, Marawi City, and from Saguiaran, Lanao del Sur. These are conflict ridden areas where no one dares to visit because of security concerns.
In so many of these areas we visited, residents are choked with tears, seeing for the first time a national government official. It would have been much easier for us to send a team to do interviews on the needs assessment and render us a report. But there is something very critical about walking where they walk. As we let ourselves experience some of the difficulties they face, we build empathy. And we bring the government down to the people, giving them hope that they have not been forgotten.
This is our way of defending the Constitution and doing justice to every man. We make it a point to be with the poor, sharing their tears and their heartaches, and thereby establishing that the government has empathy for their troubles. Even as my team and I leave their homes with broken hearts, we vow to return. Not just with help, but also with programs to make them believe in their own capactiy to uplift their own lives.
Our way of defending the Constitution and strengthening our institutions is to speak truth and show our people that there is nothing wrong with speaking dissent—that is our right and sometimes also our burden. Our children’s children must see that our society does not silence anyone who believes they has something to tell.
It has been decades since the institution of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1987 Constitution. One would think that we should have been long past debating fundamental rights.
But these are extraordinary times. These are particularly challenging times for our profession. But you are here, and therein lies the promise. Since the beginning, it is during times of extreme darkness when the world discovers extraordinary leaders. Think of Jose Abad Santos, the 5th Justice of the Supreme Court, who chose to give up his life instead of collaborate with an opressor. Think of Nelson Mandela, whose leadership ended apartheid in South Africa. Both chose to remain unmoved in their principles, no matter how difficult the path that they have faced, the darkness, terrifying as it may seem, has the ability of definie the light and truth—and allowing those who are brave and selfless, to shine. We do not seek darkness, but we must not fear it either.
This quote from Thomas Paine’s The Crisis says it clearly: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”
Now more than ever, the Philippines needs its lawyers. Let us safeguard our Constitution against abuses, prevent our institutions from weakening, and save our people from their disillusionment. Our fellow Filipinos need our leadership.
Thank you all very much, and may you have a productive convention ahead!