[OPINION] For Chito Gascon: A farewell to my colleague, my friend, my defender

Leila de Lima
[OPINION] For Chito Gascon: A farewell to my colleague, my friend, my defender
'I thank Chito for being one of those who continued to see me as a fighter, and not just a survivor of abuse'

The past few years, I am quite sure that life has taught many of us of a particular meaning of “faith.”

The “faith” that means more than just “belief in God,” and is much closer to “trust in God.”

It’s “faith” that means knowing that, though we make many plans – in our personal lives, in our careers, or in our role in the larger society – those plans, even the best laid ones, can be torn apart with or without any fault on our part. It means not just a willingness to pick those torn pieces up and try to make sense of what is left, but a willingness to entertain the thought that maybe God’s plans are different. It means courage to accept what those different plans may be. 

It’s “faith” that means looking up and around to see what now needs to be done. 

It’s “faith” that even means trusting that all our suffering has some meaning and will serve a higher purpose.

With so many misfortunes happening all around us, we are the lucky ones that could find that thread, that lifeline to hold on to.

Chito is one of the lucky ones.

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I know because I was there in the, shall we say, the “Time Before,” when we were, as a loose collective of human rights advocates and duty-holders, were formulating and building the foundations for what we thought were well-laid plans.

I have known him for many years on a professional level. Years before he was appointed by the late President PNoy to take the reins of the CHR after Chair Etta Rosales, I have already been working with him in the Inter-Agency Committee on Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances established under AO 35. We also worked, traveled, and represented our country together as part of the Official Delegation for the 2012 Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, which I was assigned to lead.

Those days weren’t perfect for human rights. But we worked hard to make things better. We capitalized on creating a network of cooperation involving not just the human rights advocates and the victims they represent, but the duty-holders as well – from the highest ranks of the police force, the military, the executive government hierarchy, and even the legislature. It was a time where there were problems, but they were problems that were meticulously being solved through mutual respect and cooperation.

Yes, I wore two hats at the time – as a member of the administration, and as a human rights advocate given my start in public service with the Commission on Human Rights. But I never saw that as a problem; I saw it as the key to the solution. And I know that Chito also saw it that way.

And, so, when the term of PNoy was coming to an end, I was happy to see the team of leaders he entrusted the future of the CHR to, under the very passionate, very committed, and very able leadership of one Chito Gascon.

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Again, that was a time of serious and yet hopeful and light-hearted planning. 

With the connections we have forged across all sectors, with Chito at the helm of the CHR, with me as Chair of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, it seemed that it was going to be the time to put those plans into action and see the seeds we have planted grow into enduring protections for human rights.

But, alas, life had different plans.

And, yes, Chito is one of the lucky ones.

Because, in the midst of seeing those plans be torn apart in the most frighteningly and blatantly violent ways, he didn’t waste time lamenting those broken plans. He had a strong enough faith not to give up, but to reassess what his role has to be now and how to keep the threads of the human rights movement, not just alive, but willing and able to continue working for the Filipino people.

On a personal note, kung meron mang silver lining sa mga pinagdaanan natin nitong mga nakaraang taon, it is that I got to know Chito on a more personal level, not as a fellow human rights advocate, but as a victim and one of my staunchest and most constant and dependable defenders.

You can spend years speaking about defending human rights, and advocating for justice for victims, but nothing can ever prepare you for being a victim yourself. The helplessness is real, no matter how strong you think yourself to be. Panghihinaan ka talaga ng loob, and in those times, strength not only comes from within, but also from those who are there to help.

And Chito was there for me. A defender and a victim, yes, but a fellow human rights advocate from beginning to end.

He was there for me because he knew that I was an innocent victim of political reprisal and persecution, owing much to my own work as a human rights advocate. Doon pa lang, mas lumakas na ang kapasidad naming maintindihan ang isa’t isa. Dahil alam ko, dama rin niya ang hirap at takot ng isang human rights defender under peril. And, yet, ganun na lang ang tapang niya na hindi niya ko iniwan sa laban.

He helped keep my story alive in the minds of allies here and abroad. He acted as my de facto ambassador in various international fora such as the UN (acting as advocate and co-champion), and NGOs based mostly in Geneva, New York/Washington, and Brussels (EU HQ). He told not just my own story of victimization, but also the root cause of it as a defender of human rights, rule of law, and democracy.  Hindi niya nakakalimutan kung bakit ako napadpad sa PNP Custodial Center nitong huling apat at kalahating taon. He fought for me as a victim, and as a defender. 

Even as he gave me support on a personal basis, he never forgot that, though I may be detained, I am not useless, which is one of my most important blessings these past few years. Though I may not be able to walk out of the four walls of my detention area, I could still work and advocate for others, and Chito never forgot that, and always gave me the chance to continue working for others. Sa totoo lang, I would be lost without that purpose, and I thank Chito for being one of those who continued to see me as a fighter, and not just a survivor of abuse.

At dahil d’yan, maraming, maraming, maraming salamat, mahal naming Chairperson Chito Gascon. Wherever you are now, I know you are still advocating for human rights. As they say, you can take the person out of the CHR, but you can’t take the CHR out of the person. 

Chito, it has been an honor, a privilege, and my deepest blessing from God to have met you, worked with you, and been on the receiving end of your compassion for human rights victims and commitment to human rights advocacy. Rest in peace, Chito, the man I am honored to call my friend. –

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