Address impunity in the face of pressure, Sereno tells lawyers

MANILA, Philippines – There is a “creeping” impunity in the Philippines and lawyers must do everything they can to hold everyone accountable, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno told lawyers at the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) national convention on Friday, March 24, at a hotel in Pasay City.

In her speech, Sereno said that the role of lawyers is all the more important during these “increasingly violent times” and that everyone in the legal profession must not be scared to “go against the tide.”

Our role, as lawyers, is to provide a voice for those rendered voiceless; to bring causes that would otherwise not be heard; to provide hope in the midst of impunity,” Sereno said.

“Where an offender is unduly immunized from accountability through external conditions such as policy, politics or pecuniary interests, then impunity has set in and the rule of law is diminished,” Sereno said.

In her call to lawyers, Sereno said they must stand firm in the face of pressure and follow their conscience.

Under attack

Sereno recognized that hers is a tall order considering the present circumstances, noting that “public interest lawyers, especially defenders of human rights have been under increasing attack.”

“As a result of assassinations of lawyers and their clients, individual members of the bar and even an IBP chapter have made the step of publicly articulating their fears to the extent that, that IBP chapter indicated its desistance in defending certain types of clients,” Sereno said. (READ: Sereno expresses concern over Duterte drugs list)

Even so, Sereno said, lawyers must “go against the grain” and not take “the path of least resistance.”

“In the face of clear and patent injustices, we have an affirmative duty to not turn a blind eye but to do what we can to help. It tells us that, in the midst of impunity and a rising tide of hopelessness about the rule of law, we are called to bring hope to our people,” Sereno told lawyers.

The last part of the Chief Justice’s speech was an impassioned call to lawyers to fight – not against a person, but against a culture. (READ: Duterte apologizes to Sereno for his 'harsh' words)

“It is a culture that started when people started to look the other way; a culture that thrived when people stopped caring; a culture that prevailed when people stopped hoping. The only way to fight against a culture is to be a counter-culture – to stand up for truth and right even when others choose to keep silent or to spread lies; to encourage action when others are apathetic; to dare to hope when others have given up,” Sereno said.

Earlier this year, the Chief Justice said that the unsolved killings in the government’s war on drugs had undermined efforts to reform the justice system in the country.

Sereno said in a speech before business lawyers last January: ”Despite all of these positive things and even greater potential gains, we have to face the reality of the daily accounts of unsolved killings, many of them committed brazenly with public warnings against drug pushing or addiction. It is not surprising, therefore, that the perception of the rule of law in our country has swung from marked improvement to a downgrade.”

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.