Saturday, June 13, 2009

What do we stand for?

Published in the 5/24/09 issue of Mindanao Times, the article below, which I wrote, argued that the CHR investigation is not so much about them, the criminals, as it is about us, it's about our principles, our belief that Davao City, indeed this nation, is a society where rule of law, not of men, prevails.

Since the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) began on March 30 its investigation on the extrajudicial killings in Davao City, a cloud of doubt hung over the CHR. Many Davaoeños cannot seem to understand why the CHR is investigating the killings in Davao City that, according to the latest count, have claimed more than 800 victims—most of whom have criminal records.

They can’t help asking: Which human rights is the CHR favoring? Is it the human rights of the criminals or the human rights of the innocent civilians? Why shine a bright light on the killings when the city and its citizens are enjoying peace and prosperity? Can the CHR not leave this dark side of the city since Davaoeños can live with it anyway? Don’t these criminals deserve to be killed in the first place?

While Davaoeños asked these questions, they do not frame the debate very well. This gripping issue of our time is not about whose rights should be given more consideration. It’s about what principles do we stand for.

By all accounts, every human being possesses human rights by virtue of their being human. Regardless of one’s class, color, creed, or—yes, criminal record—one has rights that must be respected and protected. These rights include, among others, the right to life and due process of law. These rights are universally accepted and viewed as important—so important these rights are that, no matter the intent, every violation against them is simply unacceptable in a society that claims to uphold the rule of law.

And extrajudicial killing is one such unacceptable human right violation. But it has been difficult for some of us to understand, let alone accept, this because the victims usually involved in these killings were the ones who mess around the law themselves. So how can you grant them the benefit of the law when they do not follow the law? Why respect their human rights when they do not respect the human rights of others?

What more malignant disease a democratic society can have than to harbor such a profoundly distorted sense of justice. Just because a person has flouted the law doesn’t mean punishing him, extra judicially, is justified. Of course, this does not mean that criminals should not be punished. They should be punished because, as Cesare Beccaria explained in “Essay on Crime and Punishment,” “A wrong already committed…ought to be punished…only because it might otherwise excite false hopes of impunity in others.” But the manner of meting out justice is equally important. In other words, the means is as important as the end. The first should simply not be sacrificed at the altar of the second.

Today, we have no king or emperor like Nero who once ruled madly, ordering even the death of his own mother and his wife. Neither are we under the rule of medieval clergymen who subjected the heretics to Inquisition, leaving many a people burning at the stakes. Today, we live in a society where the rule of law, not of men, is observed. It means that there is still a process that we must follow even in punishing the most bestial of crimes. It means that when you commit a crime or is a suspected criminal, you are not punished right away. But rather, you are apprehended, charged, prosecuted, tried, and convicted then punished or acquitted then freed.

That is the process that those who have been killed by the ghostly vigilante group called “Davao Death Squad” should have gone through. That is the process that the CHR found missing in dealing with the criminals. Alas, that is the process that we Davaoeños are willing to give up in the name of peace and order.

Some people do not get the point why the CHR had to investigate what CHR Chair Leila de Lima described as “one of the most audacious violations against the right to life in our times.” Critics of the CHR construed the commission’s move to investigate the spate of killings as cuddling the criminals. They narrowly perceived it as only favoring the rights of the criminals and ignoring the other side of the equation, which is the rights of the civilians. The public inquiry the CHR initiated struck them as disturbing the city’s serene status quo, which Davaoeños currently enjoy. They even branded the CHR Chair as pakialamera.

These critics, however, are off the mark. The CHR is first and foremost for human rights. Its job is to ensure that human rights are always respected and protected, regardless of whose human rights it is. It is thus unwise to berate the CHR when it’s merely doing its job.

I know many of you out there will ask me, “You’re a Davaoeño, don’t you want peace and order?” I am a Davaoeño who also wants to live a peaceful life in a peaceful environment, as do other Davaoeños. None of that means we should be mum about the killings happening in our own backyard, or remain a “bystander,” as Bro. Karl Gaspar put it.

Our silence is more than an admission that the killings are just all right. It is as if we Davaoeños take the Machiavellian dictum, “the end justifies the means,” to heart—and take it fanatically.

Is that what we stand for, really?

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