Message at the Liberal International Prize for Freedom 2018 Awarding Ceremony for Senator Leila de Lima
Novotel Manila Araneta Center, Quezon City
Thank you very much. Kindly take your seats.
Former President Benigno Aquino III; Senate Minority Leader Frank Drilon; our president—the President of the Liberal Party of the Philippines—Senator Kiko Pangilinan; members of the House of Representatives who are present; local government officials who are present; former Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. and the other former national government officials who are present; Mr. Wolfgang Heize, Country Director of FNF; of course our distinguished guests from Liberal International, led by Mr. Juli Minoves; other international organizations who are represented here this evening; members of the family of Senator Leila de Lima; my fellow workers in government; distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen: Magandang gabi po sa inyong lahat! (“Magandang gabi!”)
First of all, thank you to Liberal International for inviting me to this momentous occasion, as we celebrate the life and the work of one our country’s strongest and passionate defenders of human rights: Senator Leila de Lima. [applause]
You know, Senator Leila and I come from the same province—we share a home province—but it was her fatherwho I knew of personally for the longest time, because he was a very good friend of my father. The first time I met Sen. Leila was, ironically, during the wake of her dad. By some stroke of luck—not of luck, but of fate—I lost my husband to a plane crash two weeksafter her dad was interred. My friendship with Sen. Leila actually blossomed after I lost my husband already. She was with my husband in President Aquino’s Cabinet at the time.And we became quite close during the 2016 Presidential Campaign. And the few times I visited her in Camp Crame, again, ironically, were happy occasions—it would always be littered with laughter from start to finish. Those ofyou who know Senator Leila well, alamniyo pilya siya, ‘di ba? She has introduced me to her newfound friends, the stray cats that Senator Kiko was telling us about.
But this recognition, alongside many notable citations and awards that Senator Leila has received in the recent times, is testament to her fearlessness and indomitable spirit as a freedom fighter. It proves that fighting for what you know is right and just—no matter where you are and who you are up against—matters deeply in healing our nation’s shattered spirits and hopes. And that fighting for human rights has become one of the most important struggles of today’s world, affecting with increasing urgency, the everyday lives of our people.
The magnitude of this struggle can be seen in how our beloved nation, one of the earliest cradles of democracy in Asia, with citizens who are willing to die to protect freedom, are now waking up to a whole new value system. Slowly, we see that people are willing to give up the idea of inviolable basic human rights for all, in the name of so-called security, safety, and even convenience. Some people ask in their moments of self-reflection, and in much pain: What happened to us? And where is our nation going now? Because after decades of demonstrating leadership when it comes to human rights, we now realize that in the Philippines today, the way Filipinos understand human rights is still largely dependent on the actions of the powerful.
No wonder that many Filipinos remain powerless.
During the State of the Nation Address early this week, we heard the idea that human rights is not about human lives—as Mr. Vicboy was telling us a while ago. But we all know that even the most casual student of human rights will recognize this statement for what it is: a false and misleading dichotomy. The fact that such a blatant untruth has sparked a debate is further proof that even in a nation with a much-vaunted “human rights Constitution,” much remains to be done in creating a deeper awareness and appreciation of human rights among our people. It is apparent (to anyone) who wishes to see clearly, that the right to life is one of the most basic human rights. We fight for human rights preciselybecause we value human lives.[applause]
Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “every human being has a right to life, liberty and security of person.” Even in our Bill of Rights under the 1987 Constitution, it states, and I quote: “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the laws.” Close quote.
Our right to live is enshrined in the law, and this is the anchor of the entire framework of human rights. The right to life, along with all other rights—to food, to shelter, to education, to healthcare—are indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated. They come as a whole package, and cannot be granted in part and denied in others. We must make our people further understand that every human being is entitled to these rights, and that fulfilling the rights of some, at the cost of stripping away the rights of others, is precisely the injustice that the concept of human rights was established to correct.
These are extraordinary times, and there is a danger that we may lose our way as we are pulled in different directions. Let us focus on asking ourselves more deeply: How could we allow these injustices to happen, and when do we begin holding people accountable for their actions? It is time to speak up and work as one. The more we do, the more we are able to make the fight for human rights relevant.
The real work begins by making our voices heard. When we allow the din of discordant voices to drown our message, we achieve nothing. Remember when a whole community of those who put value in human rights and rule of law spoke truth to power when the proposed 2018 budget for the Commission on Human Rights was reduced to a laughable 1,000 pesos for the entire year? The pushback resulted in a restoration of the CHR budget. That was a very clear victory for us. [applause]
But now, beyond speaking truth to power, we must speak truth to the heart of every Filipino. We cannot do this by expecting the man or woman on the street to understand the language of those who have been studying and fighting for human rights for so long. We must use their language. We must see where they are coming from. We must feel their fears and their anger. We must understand their struggles. And we must all speak with one voice.
I have personally talked to many families of victims of extrajudicial killings, who have come to our office to ask for assistance in seeking justice for their loved ones. Some wrote letters, detailing how their innocent children, their spouses, their siblings, died at the hands of unidentified killers, because they were tagged as drug personalities. Some who have undergone trauma therapy with church organizations have performed a heartbreaking play, reenacting the painful deaths of their loved ones.
These widowed mothers and orphaned children showed us one important thing: the power of our message is measured not by how loud our voices are, but by the empathy that it brings. By the connections that it creates. By bringing solutions that go to the real crux of the problem: poverty, inequality, lawlessness. There must be a practicality in our approach, to ensure that human rights does not remain a vague, academic idea to our people. It is their protector against tyranny; it ensures their voices are heard; it lays out a life where they eat three meals a day and are able to send their children to school. Because these difficulties, right this very moment, are causing much tears and frustration among our people.
So many lives are on the line in this battlefield. In the past two years, we faced the reality that death and violence have become the preferred means with which to wage the war on illegal drugs—with no end in sight. The numbers have been contentious, from 3,000 to 25,000, but the reality is that one death is already far too many.
I have not seen fear this heavy, not through all the years I have worked as a public interest lawyer among the poorest, most marginalized communities of our society. For more than a decade, I saw with my own eyes how the law can sometimes be used as an instrument of injustice, against the poor and marginalized who have no knowledge of how the judicial system works. We have much to learn from them—the farmers and the fisherfolk, the urban poor and the laborers, the abused women and children, the indigenous peoples and differently–abled individuals. Going to their far-flung communities to teach them their rights under the law so that they could acquire the capacity to assert their rights for themselves,translating legal documents into their local language and giving them paralegal training, the biggest lesson I learned was empathy—the ability not just to feel sympathy, but a deeper emotion that pulls we into acting with urgency in behalf of the people weengage.
And this is why I still feel hopeful about our future. Filipinos are naturally empathic people, with a depth of love for freedom and their rights that will not be snuffed out by any tyrant. We have had a long history of bloody struggles in very dark times, and I refuse to believe that we suffered them for nothing. We will prevail. [applause] We will keep on keeping on. Celebrated writer Khalil Gibran once wrote, and I could not help but share with you this quote: “You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care, nor your nights without a want and a grief, but rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.”
As we ponder our way forward, we find inspiration and drive in the example of Senator Leila, who has never faltered, despite and in spite of the shackles her enemies tried to place on her spirit. She faces obstacles and difficulties that would make stronger men shudder, yet Senator Leila is not constrained and limited by them. She draws strength from her ordeal and finds ways to give voice to the people’s cries, prison and all. We are very proud to have her among us, and to know her for the work that she does. She could not have put it better when she said, and I quote: “No matter how influential and powerful those who violate our dignity and human rights are, our strong will and determination will always prevail; truth and justice will always succeed.” [applause] More than anything, these are the things that bind us together as advocates and as defenders of the law.
This depth in character and principle, no matter the circumstance, is what we need most now as advocates and defenders of human rights. We are called on to be more creative and moreinnovative in our leadership; to continue pushing back against those determined to peddle the fiction that our individual well-being can only come by stripping away the lives and dignity of others.
For us who are here tonight, it is clear: We call ourselves defenders of human rights, and we align ourselves with those who are the same. For Senator Leila, that fight has also been clear as day, that even in detention, she has shaken ground and inspired fellow advocates of the law, here and abroad. We all have roles to play, and it is important that we know where we are placed and what we should do to win.
Thank you very much to Liberal International, and congratulations again to Senator Leila and her family, for this worthy recognition. Mabuhay po kayong lahat!