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Strengthen human rights awareness of Filipinos, say opposition bets

MANILA, Philippines – Three senatorial aspirants from the opposition believe there should be strengthened efforts to make Filipinos more aware about their human rights – from teaching them at home to making the justice system more accessible to the poor. 

Oposisyon Koalisyon’s senatorial bets Chel Diokno, Samira Gutoc, and Erin Tañada were asked on Thursday, November 15, by a woman visiting from California how they plan to advance human rights should they be elected as senators in 2019. (READ: Things to know: Human rights in the Philippines

The 3 Senate hopefuls were guests at a forum hosted by Tindig Pilipinas in Makati City. 

Gutoc, a Maranao civic leader who strongly opposes the imposition of martial law in Mindanao, said education is “fundamental” in promoting human rights. 

She said if more institutions teach the public about human rights, then more Filipinos would be less afraid to report human rights violations, such as those she previously reported as happening under martial rule in Mindanao.  

“[They are saying there is] no human rights violations, because no one is reporting [under] the culture of fear…. Human rights consciousness is basic. Families should teach human rights and schools should teach human rights. So it’s not just [the] Ateneo Human Rights Center [that should promote it]. We should have human rights centers across the country,” said Gutoc. 

The job of human rights defenders in the Philippines has become more difficult under President Rodrigo Duterte, whom groups have repeatedly slammed for demonizing the fight for human rights as he justifies his bloody campaign against drugs. (READ: Powering through a crisis: Defending human rights under Duterte)

Transparency, accountability in the judiciary 

Tañada and Diokno, both lawyers, said changes should also be made in the justice system so that it would be easier for the poor, who are prone to human rights abuses, to get justice in the country.

Tañada said government lawyers tend to tackle multiple cases at once, which makes it is harder for them to give each indigent client proper attention.

“So how can you expect the poor, accused individual get the representation he needs in court to defend himself, if that lawyer that is assigned to him is up to his neck in other cases? This is the system that we have that is really stacked against the poor. And sad to say, the lawyers in Congress have not addressed the situation,” said the ex-Quezon congressman. 

Diokno, who heads the Free Legal Assistance Group, said judges and justices should give more priority to handling human rights cases, especially those involving the poor.

“The last resort for someone whose rights are curtailed is to go to the courts. So it's really the courts who are the guardians of human rights. The problem is that our courts have not exactly welcomed human rights cases with open arms…. They don't give it as much value as other types of cases,” said Diokno.

“I think that there should be priorities in terms of decision-making, in terms of handling of cases. Human rights should be at the top, not at the bottom,” he added.

Diokno also suggested that judges and justices be subjected to lifestyle checks, noting how near-impossible it is to  have access to the Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs) of those in the judiciary. (READ: Why don't we know enough about Supreme Court justices’ wealth?

“Once you have transparency and accountability, I think our judges now will be more open to recognizing and affirming and protecting human rights. For me, that is one way. We have to find a way to level the playing field,” said Diokno. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the Senate and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.

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