Message at the Ka Pepe Diokno Human Rights Awards 2019
De La Salle University

Thank you very much. Kindly take your seats.

Former President Benigno Aquino III; Br. Armin Luistro, Br. Bernard Oca, the other De La Salle brothers who are here with us this morning; of course, Dean Chel Diokno—rock star ng mga debate [applause]; Sec. Gil delos Reyes; our Ka Pepe Diokno Human Rights awardees—Rappler Executive Director Maria Ressa and Bishop Ambo, who is represented here this morning by his brother, Randy David; the DLSU faculty, staff, and students;  honored guests; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang umaga po sa inyong lahat! (“Magandang umaga!”)

It is an honor to be introduced by Dean Chel, and this morning, I would like to start by quoting him from a speech he delivered before my kababayans in Naga just last week, and I quote: “Minsan, parang ang bigat kapag nababanggit na ang katarungan o ang pagreporma sa sistema ng hustisya natin. Pero sa pag-ikot natin sa Kabikulan kanina, naisip ko, hindi naman pala laging ganoon. Kapag pinag-uusapan ang katarungan, ang pinag-uusapan ay mga pangarap natin para sa bayan at kung paano ba natin mapapaganda ang buhay ng kapwa natin. Na-realize ko, sa huli’t huli, justice is a joyful thing.” Close quote. [applause]

Justice has been described in many different ways but that was the first time I heard it described as “joyful.” It is so simple but it drives home a sense of comfort that a lot of us may have already forgotten to associate with justice.

The times we live in have conditioned us to feel resigned, overwhelmed, and paralyzed in the face of our nation’s problems. But Dean Chel’s words implore us to reframe the discussion of human rights and justice as a conversation about aspiration and hope.

Instead of threats to revoke scholarships for student activists, we should talk about how we can make education more accessible. Because for every child sent to school, we help a family rise out of poverty.

Instead of misogynistic remarks, we should discuss how women can be economically empowered. Because for every woman given an opportunity for work, one family doubles its income.

Instead of ignoring the concerns of the agricultural sector, we should ensure their development, as we proceed with policies like rice tariffication. Because for every farmer that we support, a whole community can be fed.

Instead of pushing for measures like the reimposition of death penalty and the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility, we should work together to truly make the wheels of justice and our rehabilitative systems turn more effectively and swiftly. And again, I quote Dean Chel: “It is not the severity of the punishment but its certainty that stops crimes.” Close quote.

Instead of targeted moves that send a chilling effect on the members of our press, we should continue finding ways to combat disinformation and strengthen media’s role to hold government accountable.

In adopting a mindset of esteem for human life, especially of those historically left in the margins, we can effect change that exponentially benefits the rest of the country. 

But when we do the opposite—when we treat lives as dispensable, and human rights as secondary—we create a culture of violence that put our country’s future in peril.

It is refreshing to be reminded that the pursuit of justice is worth celebrating amidst all the challenges that might make us believe otherwise. At a time when our basic rights are constantly being threatened, human lives are being disregarded, and our freedoms are under attack, it can be difficult to correlate the idea of human rights with joy. But to take the difficult path, to challenge it, and to come out stronger—that is the story of the Filipino. That is the story of the people we are honoring today: the late Senator Pepe Diokno and our two awardees, Maria Ressa and Bishop Ambo David.

That is the story, as well, of the People Power Revolution, which was the cause of our celebration just yesterday, on the occasion of its 33rd anniversary. At its conclusion in 1986, the world was surprised by the success of how peaceful we were able to throw out a dictator who terrorized our nation for more than 20 years. On that day, we were not defined by political color or parties, tribes or regions. We were brought together by the single, powerful idea of freedom from oppression.

Today, the world’s eyes are upon us once more, as our nation comes to grips with potent foreshadowings that our past trauma has returned: the growing culture of division and polarization among us Filipinos, the dark side of the war on drugs that trample human rights, and threats to press freedom that weaken the Fourth Estate, a critical element in our democracy. 

But more importantly, the world is paying attention because among us are those who refuse to accept this dark narrative for our country. Among us are those who move forward with defiant hope in the midst of darkness. Among us are those who keep believing. 

Our nation is primed to believe that to be ruthless is to be strong. But Bishop Ambo David has shown us that compassion is one of the greatest strengths we can possess. And that empathy, embodied by a whole community, is what can bring about true and sustainable change.

This is an era when we seem to be constantly browbeaten until we get tired of resisting. But Maria Ressa’s resilience has become revolutionary: she has left others dumbfounded by holding her head high and smiling in the face of intimidation. And she has inspired the rest of us to hold the line with the power of her soft voice and her razor-sharp eloquence.

Just as we celebrate Ka Pepe Diokno today, we celebrate both of you, and your work, for giving us much reason to believe that our fight for human rights is not a lost cause.

Your stories are important lessons that we should not meekly accept what is forced upon us—harmful policies, outrageous lies, baseless threats—sitting down. That we can demand for better solutions and for a more accountable government. We deserve better than to be patronized: we—who toil every day, pay our taxes, and serve our country in our own ways—will not settle for less.

Even if we can choose to be indifferent in light of our personal privilege, we refuse to do so, because we love this country and we feel for its people. We feel for the families who have lost loved ones to the drug war. We feel for the journalists being harassed for doing their jobs. We feel for those whose freedoms and very lives are threatened because they dare speak truth to power. Let us carry on feeling, because our ability to care is what will keep this country on the right path, despite the numerous regressive turns we are taking.

Senator Pepe Diokno, after spending more than two years in detention in Fort Bonifacio and in Laur, Nueva Ecija, co-founded the Free Legal Assistance Group soon after being released. He extended legal services to Martial Law victims for free—among them tribal groups, peasants, social workers, political detainees, and activists. He went around the country, speaking about democracy and justice with a tone of promise, instead of despair, despite all he and his family had to go through.

My hope is that, in the same way, after the tears, after the anger and all the questions, we will all choose to go back to work—whether as bishops, as journalists, as public servants, as students, as parents, and always, as citizens of this country.

Let us approach our tasks with resolve because we owe justice to our people, not just for justice’s sake, but to uplift their lives and make their everyday existence something out of the ordinary. And that is where true joy is found—not in the absence of struggles, but in seeing past them. It roots from hope, from the knowledge that there is something we can do about it, and that we are not alone. And most importantly, it is realized by our collective actions, as we draw strength and inspiration from each other. 

This is a crucial reason why gatherings like this are needed now more than ever. As we celebrate members of our community that exemplify courage in such challenging times, we are reminded that we are—indeed—a community. We are not alone in the good fight and we bear the joyful burden of the pursuit of justice together.

Take it from someone who had been through the worst of it and yet remained steadfast in his principles. Talking about Martial Law, the late Senator Diokno said, and I quote: “And so law in the land died. I grieve for it but I do not despair over it. I know, with a certainty no argument can turn, no wind can shake, that from its dust will rise a new and better law: more just, more human, and more humane. When that will happen, I know not. That it will happen, I know.” Close quote.

These were words uttered in the face of the darkest period of our history. He believed that out of it would arise something that is not just good, but something even better—“more just, more human, more humane.”

So again, my warmest congratulations to our awardees. And more importantly, my deepest gratitude. You inspire us to keep believing and keep working. In our moments of doubt, allow us to draw strength and courage from you. Likewise, we hope you are further emboldened by the knowledge that elsewhere, there are many of us who refuse to let hope die. In each other, let us find reasons to keep going.

Thank you very much! Mabuhay po kayong lahat! [applause]