There are rights only because there is value. Where we place no value, we do not even begin to think ascribing any right. Now is the perfect time to discuss the issue of human rights. Not that this is a good time to focus on a political controversy but because the Christmas season is
upon us. Christmas is the perfect season to discuss difficult issues; its kind and generous spirit soften even the acrimonious.
Human rights are naturally controversial in societies that are grappling to recognize, much less respect, the universality of human value. It is easy to accept that we as humans have value but difficult to extend the same human value to others beyond ourselves and those we care for. We probably never can regard others as ourselves (and our extensions) but a great effort must be exerted nonetheless. Only by achieving a reasonable level of valuing human beings, whether we know them or not, whether we liked them or not, can we begin to relate them to the rights that they deserve.
The higher we value human life, the greater the rights we will extend to them. Accordingly, the lesser the importance we have for others, the lesser rights we will accommodate for them. This is why we must struggle to raise the level of how we regard humanity as a race. Otherwise, the value of human life is not only selective but may be extremely so. As the saying goes, some are more equal than others. Applying that disparity into a society of laws destroys all sense of justice.
When societies were ruled by monarchies in various permutations, the inequality of human value was most obvious. The rights of kings contrasted extremely with the rights of peasants. We can even say that the right to life was not only divinely ordained but shared with human rulers. At the dictates of emperors and kings, millions of human lives would be sacrificed in the altars of wars. People were simply like numbers or statistics. History had honored great personalities and reported all others as mere casualties. Before human rights is that which is more fundamental – human value itself. Low human value, low human rights.
Do the Philippines have a human rights problem? I am sure it has. I am just as sure that it has been a perennial problem, at least from the days of foreign invasions and occupations. There were masters and slaves. Surely, they were not equal, not in value, not in rights. The few had everything, including hereditary blessings, while the vast majority had their inheritance as well – a life of poverty.
With our background of extended massive poverty, all human rights declarations are theoretical; beyond that, they are hypocritical. Yes, human life is valuable, except that the lives of the poor count for so much less. The ascendancy of human rights violations, or at least accusations of the same, have come in substantive chunks during martial law and now again in the last two and a half years of the Duterte administration. These are the periods when human rights abuses were alleged, especially when media is suppressed, and especially when the state is suspected of carrying out summary executions. Not seen or heard, because few would give them any attention at all, has been the continuous thread of fear and misery that are attendant to poverty.
We are in a spike today because of the drug war. Numbers of deaths that range from 5,000 to 25,000, all these related to the war on drugs according to anti-Duterte forces, are no joke. Whatever caused these violent deaths is really not an excuse for the deaths to have happened at all. In a free and democratic society, in a nation of laws, thousands of violent deaths are an aberration. We must not take them lightly, and we must find ways to dismantle that pattern of violence.
If the cause is the war on drugs, then that war must be fought differently, more effectively. It is understandable that a country where drug syndicates have operated with great success, claiming even the cooperation of many public officials (and that includes the police, of course), mere intramurals between syndicates wanting more, territory, more business, and more control translate to serious violence. The examples and lessons of Colombia and Mexico tell us that our casualty numbers are still low and that the situation can be much more horrible.
Ironically, there is an acceptance by the majority of Filipinos that the drug menace will have collateral damage, such as the reported deaths, official and otherwise. Killing is not part of the Filipino culture but Filipinos have not expressed outrage, not in the numbers that clearly reflect how anti-culture killing is. Either Filipinos understand that drugs are a real scourge that they have had to live with for years without much government intervention, or it is a lingering resignation of poor people who know they have very much less value than the rich. Maybe, they are convinced that their fate is simply a matter of which side of the fence one is born into.
We are moving towards the center of the Christmas season towards the heart of Christian teachings about God’s love for the poor. It may be that a human rights controversy is part and parcel of a bigger malady – the low regard for human lives when these belong to the poor. The horrible inequality in how we value human lives according to their economic and social categories will be a millstone around the neck of human rights advocacies. I believe that if we campaign to elevate the value of the lives of the poor, that there is approximate equality in worth and dignity, there will be a clear line drawn against human rights abuses.
All human beings have a right to life. Life is the first value from where all human rights emanate. Yes, we must protect life, and we must protect as well its right to a life of dignity and decency.