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The threat of House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez to give the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) a zero budget for next year due to its supposed bias against law enforcers shows how human rights advocacy has been misunderstood even by those who are expected to know better.

Speaker Alvarez is a lawyer, just like Representative Carlo Nograles of the House Committee on Appropriations. Both lawmakers have expressed dismay at the way the CHR has functioned as a watchdog of human rights violations perpetrated by state security forces.

They say that this is unfair and that the CHR should equally investigate and report on human rights violations committed by criminals, terrorists, rebels and other non-state actors.

A government watchdog

The CHR and human rights groups in general have traditionally functioned as watchdogs of state-perpetrated human rights violations for good reason. It’s because the state and state agents, vested with vast political and police powers, are in the most likely position to violate the rights of ordinary people and get away with it.

Why is this so?

For starters, the state is the primary guardian of human rights, with the task of ensuring that ordinary citizens enjoy their constitutionally-guaranteed rights and freedoms. In fact, as citizens we voluntarily surrender some of these rights to the state in order to give it the authority and capability to defend all our other rights.

The state has the following functions with regards to civil liberties and human rights:

  • Through legislation, it enshrines our rights and freedoms into laws that everyone should follow
  • Through the police and military, it exercises the exclusive use of lethal force to enforce these laws
  • Through the justice system, it ensures that criminals – those who violate the rights and freedoms of others as enshrined in the law – are arrested, tried and punished
  • Through the educational system, media and various cultural institutions, it ensures that everyone is aware and capable of exercising their rights and freedoms

Because these powers are so vast and awesome, the framers of the Constitution introduced the Bill of Rights to serve as a limitation for the exercise of such governmental powers and a protection against government abuse.

Likewise, due to such powers, it is the state, through the government, that is primarily accountable for upholding international human rights agreements and protocols. When such rights are violated in a country, whether by state security forces, criminal syndicates or rebel groups, it is STILL the government that is accountable because the state is supposed to ensure that such rights are protected from being violated by any party.

But what if the state itself, with these vast powers, starts messing around with our rights and freedoms?

What if Congress comes out with laws that deprive us of our liberty or property?

What if the police and military engage in evidence tampering, torture, extrajudicial killings or indiscriminate bombings of civilian communities?

What if the courts start selling cases to the highest bidder or are bullied into allowing violations of our rights and freedoms?

What if the schools and media are intimidated into silence and acquiescence by those in power?

In other words, what if the state itself, the ultimate guardian of our rights and freedoms, violate these very rights and freedoms? Who do we turn to then?

It is in answer to this fundamental question that independent human rights bodies play an important role, whether international bodies like the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) or the International Criminal Court (ICC), local bodies like our own CHR, or non-government human rights organizations like the New York-based Human Rights Watch or the Philippine-based Karapatan Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights (Karapatan). They sound the alarm and serve as mechanisms for redress when human rights are violated by the state itself.

Again, why always the state? Why always the government? Because from actual experience in almost all countries where fundamental rights and freedoms have been under attack, it is the state or its agents who engage in the most numerous and brutal violations of human rights. A simple listing of the world’s most brutal dictatorships and fascist regimes would bear this out.

Non-state actors

But how about human rights violations committed by drug addicts and other criminals, terrorists and rebels? If the CHR and human rights bodies don’t look into that, then who does?

Well, the state of course!

In fact, the main function of the police and military establishment plus the entire justice system is to prevent those so-called criminals, terrorists, and rebels from violating our rights and to investigate and punish them when they do.

For example, when a drug suspect rapes and kills someone, it is automatically considered a heinous crime. There is immediate public outrage. The police, NBI agents, and DOJ prosecutors are all over the place, making sure the crime is investigated and the perpetrator brought to justice. Everyone agrees that the suspect most likely violated the rights of the victim. In such cases, it would be superfluous for human rights bodies to go around town saying what is already obvious and acknowledged.

But when cops kill 4 drug suspects in a raid, the official presumption is that it was done in the regular course of law enforcement. The police, NBI and DOJ usually turn a blind eye to the possibility that the rights of the victims were violated. The victims are branded as drug users or pushers and subject to public vilification. In such a situation, it is crucial for human rights bodies to check for possible human rights abuses by the police. Otherwise, they could easily get away with it.

To reiterate, when a suspected criminal, terrorist or rebel violates our rights, it is automatically considered a crime and the entire machinery of the state is mobilized to go after the perpetrators. But when a law enforcer violates our rights, regularity is presumed and government agencies often ignore or even cover up human rights violations. Thus the need for the CHR and human rights organizations to focus on suspected state-perpetrated violations.

This explains the “bias” of human rights advocacy. It is biased towards documenting and reporting on state-perpetrated human rights violations because these are the ones that are often ignored or covered up by the authorities.

So when people accuse the CHR and human rights organizations of being biased, it means they’re actually doing their job.#

(Published in Rappler.com on August 10, 2017. Photo courtesy of Philstar.com)

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