SPEECH OF HIS EXCELLENCY BENIGNO S. AQUINO III PRESIDENT OF THE PHILIPPINES FORUM OF THE ASIAN FEDERATION AGAINST INVOLUNTARY DISAPPEARANCE (AFAD) AND THE FAMILIES OF VICTIMS OF ENFORCED DISAPPEARANCE (FIND) MAY 4, 2011 (delivered by Secretary Leila de Lima)
I would like to thank the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearance (AFAD), the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance (FIND) and the Embassy of France in Manila for inviting me to be with you today. As you are all well aware, His Excellency, President Benigno S. Aquino III, was also invited to grace today’s event and give a response to the presentation of our distinguished guest speaker, Professor Gabriella Citroni. However, it is with great regret that the President is not able to be here today to personally deliver his message, in light of previous commitments. He did, nonetheless, ask me to represent him and deliver this message. It is my honor and pleasure to do so, in my capacity as both the representative of the President and as Secretary of Justice.
Allow me to begin by pointing out an important anthropological phenomenon in the history of mankind – our penchant for stories and for storytelling. Experts have pointed out mankind’s capacity and love for storytelling as an imperative characteristic that distinguishes humans from baser creatures of nature. In fact, it is theorized as being one proof of the existence of the so-called “psychic unity of mankind” because, regardless of race, age, gender, religion, social status, etc., everyone loves to hear stories.
Once a story is begun, very few things in this world are more frustrating than having the telling abruptly cut-off. This frustration springs from something much deeper than just leaving one’s curiosity unsatisfied. When a story is started, each member of the audience, to a certain degree, becomes personally invested in seeing it unfold to the very end. Just imagine being in a movie house, in the middle of watching an engaging, perhaps even suspenseful film, when the power suddenly goes out or something else happens to interrupt the showing. I don’t know what people in other countries do, but here, in the Philippines, the audience almost immediately begins to get restless – clapping their hands, stomping their feet and making catcalls in the general direction of the projector room in the apparent hope of getting someone to solve whatever technical difficulties might be the cause of the sudden interruption.
Such is the strong and immediate reaction to an interrupted story. Imagine, therefore, the scale of the frustration, the torture – nay, the horror –when what is interrupted, when what is silenced, when what is abruptly left unfinished is more than just the telling of a story, but a life. Imagine the panic, the clamor for answers when a loved one is there one moment, but inexplicably gone the next – without definitive clues to indicate what has become their fate.
These are uncomfortable questions to face; unthinkable prospects to contemplate. Yet, the true horror is that some of us present here today, the families of victims of involuntary disappearance, need not imagine what it would be like for they live the Lives of the Interrupted every single day of their lives, with no foreseeable end in sight.
Perhaps this is the reason why the cause of the Desaparecidos and the families they left behind resonates universally. So much so that, not only is there a universal condemnation of “Enforced Disappearance” as a governmental tool to attain the utter submission, repression and silence of political opposition and dissent, there has been, for several decades now, and particularly in the last several years, a resounding call from the so-called “Parliament of Man” – the United Nations – to sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (the “ICPAPED”).
The salient features, the grave importance, the continuing relevance and the significance of universal signing and ratification of the ICPAPED has been thoroughly discussed by Professor Citroni, who was herself a member of the Italian delegation to the United Nations Intersessional Working Group to Elaborate a Draft Legally-Binding Normative Instrument for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. We could not have found a more dedicated, more knowledgeable and, best of all, more involved person in the Philippine Enforced Disappearance experience than Prof. Citroni herself. She has not only made the success of the ICPAPED a personal and professional goal, she has also made a point of familiarizing herself with the Filipinos’ intricate and emotional history with this human rights problem.
Thus, in acknowledgment of her efforts and the value of her contributions – not just to the body of international human rights instruments and laws, but also to the Filipinos’ understanding and awareness of this problem – the government of the Republic of the Philippines now goes on record to state that the pleas and appeals for the Philippines’s signing of ratification of ICPAPED has not fallen on deaf ears.
We are well aware of the efforts it has taken to even get the ICPAPED to enter into force, which it did so only last year, on 23 December 2010, or more than four (4) years after it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, upon ratification by the twentieth State, which happened to be Iraq. Now, although eighty-eight (88) have signed, only about twenty-five (25) have ratified thus far. Other nations have even gone as far as to communicate that they have no intention of becoming a party to the Convention.
On the part of the Philippine government, on the other hand, we are aware of our on-going commitment to positively rescue this human rights issue. Though we have not signed or become a party to the ICPAPED as yet, our efforts to combat and eradicate the same speak for our sincerity on this matter. The Aquino administration has, in fact, made an administrative policy of leading and governing with transparency by actively seeking or, at least, welcoming participation from all sectors in governance. Silencing the voices of opposition and of critics is not the way we govern or lead, and repression has no place in our government.
The real credit, however, goes to the Filipino people themselves who, in the last national election, decisively voted to put an end to the reign of domestic and institutionalized mechanisms of terror employed by a regime that cultivated a culture of impunity: the Filipino people, instead, put their faith in a new regime that vows to recognize and revitalize the rule of law.
Admittedly, we have not, in the less than one year we have been in office, been able to totally eradicate acts of repression, which resulted in a number of extrajudicial killings and suspected incidents of enforced disappearance in the last ten (10) months. These incidents are usually prevalent in vulnerable areas, particularly in the Southern part of the country, or areas characterized by the reign of local strongmen or political clans, or highly contested political rivalries among such clans. We are, therefore, aware that further efforts are required to fully address these issues.
At this point, however, we are concentrating on internal or domestic changes, which includes improving our electoral system, – by ensuring that the sovereignty and will of the people prevail over the use of guns, goons and gold. Only by truly empowering our people by making the exercise of the universal right of suffrage truly meaningful can we ensure that the observance of human rights as a policy is not left to the whims of government power.
Another approach is to ensure that institutions, which are Constitutionally mandated to keep in line high-ranking officials of government – both elected and otherwise – are adequately supported, empowered, and adequately armed with firm leadership. With the recent vacancy in the Office of the Ombudsman, we now have the opportunity to appoint someone of unimpeachable integrity and political will as the new anti-corruption watchdog of the people. Sustained vigilance, and the guarantee that every wrong action will be dealt with by the swift and firm hand of justice should be enough to keep the acts of government, particularly of law enforcement and military elements, firmly within the bounds of law.
We are firmly aware, therefore, that a three-pronged response is expected of us: first, one that deals with the past – by doing what we can to bring closure and justice for desaparecidos and the families they left behind; second, one that deals with the present – and improves our present response to incidents of enforced disappearance, which – although have radically or dramatically decreased in the past 10 months – may still have not been completely avoided; and, third, one that lays the foundation for adequate mechanisms to maintain, and even improve, human rights protection in the future – which includes complete eradication of incidents of enforced disappearance.
All these we are attempting to address now – not just because we feel a duty to stand as one with our allies in the international community, who clearly feel strongly about seeing to the universal accession to the ICPAPED – but, most importantly, because we recognize the problem of enforced disappearance as a domestic, even personal, issue that requires our categorical response. After all, the present leadership of the Noynoy Aquino administration has been shaped by the events of the last half century, constituting the Philippines’s most recent political history, characterized by its own share of human rights debacles and, yes, even bloodshed.
As the kind of leader he is, therefore, and in light of his origins, it is the intent of the President to heal our country – our human rights situation – from within; to come to our being based on our own experiences and the lessons we’ve learned in the past. Part of the process, no doubt, would eventually lead us to arrive at a consensus with the rest of the world in matters that are as universal as human rights concerns. But change must start from within the Philippines. Only then can we make meaningful contributions to the body of international knowledge, norms, instruments and laws dealing with matters of universal concern.
We assure the families of the desaparecidos, and the desaparecidos themselves, wherever they may be, that they have no stauncher ally than the Aquino administration. We wish for their interrupted lives to go back on track, for their stories to be told – right up to their ending. Not just to afford closure or justice, but because that is but consistent with respect for the human dignity, and what each human being deserves. As Secretary of Justice, I commit to continue to push for the ratification of the ICPAPED.
I distinctly recall that one of the first events I attended, in my first few months as then Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, was the launching of AFAD’s publication, entitled “Reclaiming Stolen Lives”. That is precisely an example of how people’s penchant and affinity for the art of storytelling is closely linked with the issue of enforced disappearance. That book, “Reclaiming Stolen Lives”, is a prime example of how families and advocates have endeavored to keep victims’ stories alive; to ensure that they are remembered long enough to ensure that, perhaps, one day, their ultimate fates would finally be known, and the final chapter of their lives can finally be written or told – hopefully, with the resounding sound of the gavel signaling that justice will finally be done.
Rest assured that we are all on the same page on this matter. No one here would deny how abhorrent the practice of enforced disappearance is – it sows terror, the kind attached to the unknown. Families cannot properly mourn, they are left wondering. There is no closure, and practically no hope of ever seeing their loved ones again. We know this, we understand it, and you have our commitment to drive this practice to extinction.
The story of our collective struggle for freedom is echoed in the mixed lament and hope of our national hero, Jose Rizal, who spoke of those who fought for liberty but who could tragically die before the break of dawn. Each of us has the right to live in daylight—as free men and women, unmolested as we go about our daily lives. Let us fight the darkness. Let us live in the daylight.
Thank you, once again, for giving me the opportunity to share this message on behalf of the leader of the Executive Department of government, the leader of the Filipino people.