[OPINION] Reflections at the dawn of a hope-filled New Year and decade

Senator Leila M. de Lima

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[OPINION] Reflections at the dawn of a hope-filled New Year and decade
I am filled with hope to see that there is a growing momentum for demanding accountability, as more and more allies committed to defending human rights, democracy and the Rule of Law are making themselves heard


Count me, please, among the Filipinos who welcome this new year with hope.  But my hope is not because of Duterte’s presidency, but in spite of it.

I do not, and never have, taken it against the millions of Filipino voters who voted for him during the 2016 presidential elections that they decided to give him the chance to prove himself worthy of the Office of the President.  

Like all Filipinos, they had their own daily problems to deal with, their own views on what are the most pressing issues and problems facing society and, naturally, their own idea on who they think would be up for the task of leading a nation of more than 100 million Filipinos of varying economic, social and cultural standing in the next 6 years.  He promised to solve the drug problem and the traffic problem in 6 months! Who could blame the Filipinos for voting for that?

If anything, their choice deserves respect, and it is on their behalf that most of my feelings of indignation are stemming: the man they chose to trust to solve their problems has not only failed them in so many ways, but has created – and is continuing to create – multigenerational problems for the country. 

From an ever-growing level of foreign debt, to the incursions he has allowed to happen against our sovereignty and national territory.  

That is why he is desperate to silence critics like myself, and why he would lash out at anyone who dares open up the political and civic space to free discourse of issues.

Worse, he would do it at the expense of anyone and everyone, but primarily the Filipino people he is supposed to serve.

Take, for instance, the threat to impose entry visas for Americans.

When Malacañang made that threat, it was not doing so from a position of careful thought and consideration about what is best for the country – not in terms of its adverse effects on the national economy, or on our international position in terms of foreign relations.  It was doing so from a position of a maladjusted adult throwing a tantrum because he was, again, at the receiving end of valid criticisms that he neither has the maturity nor the factual or legal foundation to adequately defend against.  

That the criticism is coming from people he cannot kill or bully merely limited his options to making threats against innocent bystanders: not the American people – who have plenty of alternative options as to where they could take their business in this highly globalized economy – but the Filipino people, who stand to lose their jobs and livelihood, and possibly even meaningful contact with family members holding American passports.

In other words, Malacañang made that threat without thinking it through.  It is a classic knee-jerk reaction from a tyrant: why constructively engage with others on important issues, when you can just lash out and throw your weight around and prove your machismo in the most primitive manner?  Once again, he proves he does not serve the public, but himself and his own ego.

And it is a sign of the times that many were not even surprised by it.  Least of all myself.  

This government has expelled a nun for defending human rights.

This government has made it explicitly clear that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is not welcome.

This government has red-tagged the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples because it is much harder to deny entry to a Filipino citizen.

This government has explicitly stated that International Criminal Court officials and investigators will be made human targets by the Philippine military if they attempt to come to the Philippines to investigate extrajudicial killings.

This government has bullied media outfits who dare exercise their freedom of the press.

This unconstructive reaction is, sadly, quite predictable and par for the course for this administration: it is destructive, it solves no problems, and is even impotent in soothing Duterte’s ego because, as the reaction from the US senators have shown, committed defenders of human rights don’t bow down before bullies and their tactics.

And that’s precisely when tyrants fail: when they are confronted with their sins and made to fix their mess.

And that’s the most important thing to remember when we hear about the actions being taken by US policy and lawmakers: They came about because of the Duterte administration’s utter failure to address the worsening human rights situation in the Philippines.  They are the product of not just a lack of concrete action to remedy human rights abuses, but the blatant attempt to normalize attacks on human rights, democracy and the Rule of Law.

These did not suddenly come about.  They did not suddenly take interest in the plight of a falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned Senator from the Philippines.  

The US Senate Resolution and the amendment thereto, which seeks to impose the Global Magnitsky sanctions, and even the earlier US entry ban provision included in the 2020 US Appropriations Act, merely recognize that my unjust detention and continuing persecution is intrinsically linked to my vocal criticism of the bloody – yet failed – so-called “War on Drugs,” and to my attempt to shed light on issues affecting the free and democratic way of life of Filipinos, including disturbing encroachments into our sovereignty and national territory by a bullying neighbor state.  Same as in the case of Maria Ressa, which is also another case of persecution that concerns defenders of democracy and press freedom all over the world. Our cases are not the most concerning; they are, however, the most chilling.  If women of our public stature could be oppressed and persecuted – with impunity! – for standing up against the Duterte government, it sends a chilling effect on others who are inclined to stand up for what is right.

As is made clear in the language of the Senate Resolution and even the appropriations provision, the ultimate goal is to give back to human rights victims, human rights defenders, champions of Democracy and the Rule of Law, and all Filipino citizens alike the free and open space to speak their minds, to appeal for redress from their government for wrongs committed against them, and, in general, to participate in political and civic life without fear of persecution.  

The US State Department Report on the Philippines has been mentioning these concerns for the last two years.  You can, thus, view the US Resolution and the appropriations provision as merely the next step that the US is taking to urge the Philippine government to address these global concerns.  

And the US is not alone. The UN has spoken about these and about my case. Same with the European Union, Canadian and Australian parliaments.

My case was featured by the Inter-Parliamentary Union as one of the most concerning examples of Parliamentarians At Risk Around the World.

Groups like Amnesty International and Parliamentarians for Global Action, among others, have recognized my situation as that of a Prisoner of Conscience.

All these developments did not come from a vacuum. On the contrary, it comes from a deep understanding across national borders that a threat to democracy, rule of law and human rights anywhere in the world is a threat to them all over the world.

For my part, I am filled with hope to see that there is a growing momentum for demanding accountability, as more and more allies committed to defending human rights, democracy and the Rule of Law are making themselves heard.  Whether those allies will take up my case as their own, or whether they want to focus on bringing attention to the human rights situation in the Philippines, or to other particular cases of political persecution – that is their call.  

I am fortunate that my long and consistent track record for defending human rights, for fighting corruption and for championing Democracy and the Rule of Law speaks for itself; and so does the utter lack of credible evidence against me.  I do not really have to do anything but continue my fight to convince people of my innocence.  As I have said before, if my continued detention is the price I pay for standing up for human rights, I am prepared to continue making this sacrifice until the human rights victims are vindicated and their abuses brought to justice.  

So, whether or not similar acts of support are coming, I will continue to fight. And 2020 seems to be off to a great start for human rights warriors and victims of persecution alike, such as myself. – Rappler.com

Senator Leila de Lima, a fierce Duterte critic, has been detained in a facility at the Philippine National Police headquarters for nearly 3 years over what she calls trumped-up drug charges.

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