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Timely Notes

July 25, 2007

Note: This article was published as editorial on

Noteworthy and timely – these are the words that would aptly describe the poignant yet spirited speech Chief Justice Reynato Puno delivered before the University’s “walking intellectuals” during the conferment of the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws (honoris causa) on April 18.
For a very fleeting yet solemn event, the Chief Justice, who vowed “to uphold no theology but the rule of law,” talked not only about the most unexpected but also about the feelings and hindsight of the contemporary era. As he delivered his speech, his audience saw the other persona of the Chief Justice. Indeed, what the newly graduates and school officials saw was a Supreme Court Chief already fed up with the country’s growing social apathy and injustice, the government’s continued disregard of human rights, and the surmounting “mindless” war versus terror.
Puno mentioned the words human rights forty times, a manifestation that their apparent and continued disregard is solid enough to cause alarm and consternation.
That’s why he called the new graduates “walking intellectual” and predicted that tomorrow, “you will be looking at our people with a fresh eye.”
Thus he said: “I urge you to use your new eye to perceive the meaning and nuances of our continuing struggle to protect and push to new thresholds the human rights of our people.”
Puno’s message was without borders, without any periphery. This is because the issue of human rights is universal, and its constant abatement and diminution is happening in every corner of the world these days- at this very moment.
True enough, because a day after the commencement exercises, seven innocent construction workers had their heads separated from their bodies in what was described by the Arroyo administration as “ruthless” and “barbaric” beheadings perpetrated by the Abu Sayyaf.
In the United States, a South Korean boy and student of Virginia Tech killed 32 people and wounded 29 before committing suicide on April 16, making it the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The mass shooting sent a chilling message to U.S. government determined to keep its troops in war-torn Iraq and anxious about curbing America’s gun culture.
In a clear-cut manner, the Chief Justice described as “mindless” and “knee jerk” the US-led war on terrorism. He said that the world began to feel the “trampling effects” of the US war games after 9/11, which “altered the face of international law.
“The war on terrorism has inevitable spilled over effects on human rights all over the world, especially in countries suspected as being used as havens of terrorists,” he said, and added that one visible result of the will to end terrorism “is to take legal shortcuts, and legal shortcuts always shrink the scope of human rights.”
He was referring to the extra-legal ways of the United States in pursuing and dealing with suspected enemies and those harboring them. Newspaper reports confirmed that the US government resorted to “extraordinary rendition,” or the extrajudicial transfer of a person from one state to another. Allegedly, these extralegal renditions were carried out for the purpose of interrogation and, according to critics, for the carrying out of torture.
He suggested that the tentacles of America’s fight versus terror have reached our shores. And this was characterized by the prevailing climate of legal short cuts and extra-judicial killings. But Puno made no mention of the Arroyo administration as having any knowledge about the ongoing extrajudicial killings, which is the chilling corollary of its counter-insurgency operations against the New Peoples Army. But read between the lines, what the Chief Justice would like to say is that the America’s unilateral war on terror served as license for the Philippine government to also initiate a local version of battle against terrorism, locally called anti-insurgency campaign, and to exploit “extralegal” means. Like the US unilateral and universal purges, the local version has one inevitable casualty – the people’s basic human rights.
“As young graduates, you may be asking yourself the relevance of these ongoing violations of human rights to your life, especially as you embark on your journey to improve the economic aspects of your life.”
At the end of the school year, hundred of thousand graduates are going to look for jobs; however, it is discouraging to note that this “weak state” has but a little to offer when it comes employment.
To Justice Puno, the solution to these problems (e.g. terrorism, poverty, killings) is not to let the people eat cake, but to give them the rod to catch the fish. That’s why he said that “countries that cannot give decent life to their young people will serve as incubators of extremism that may end up in terrorism.”
For the past weeks, the Arroyo administration was talking about political fantasies to hide and justify the true state of the country. A World Bank report reveals that about 15 million Filipinos survive on less than $1 a day. But the Arroyo regime, through the National Anti-Poverty Commission, belied it and claimed that only 10.5 million Filipino live on $1 a day. But even so, the figure is still very high to cause disappointment and anxiety.
It is sad that this “weak state” is being run by political illusionists who speak of inexhaustible alibis to defend their incompetence.
Really, we have a “weak state”, er, a “failed state”, run by stubborn political animals that continue to arrogate powers unto themselves. “The threats to our national security and human rights will be aggravated if we have a state, weakened internally by a government hobbled by corruption, struggling with credibility, battling the endless insurgence of the left and the right; and, by a state weakened externally by pressure exerted by creditor countries, by countries where our trade comes from, by countries that supply our military and police armaments,” said the Chief Justice.
At the end of Puno’s speech there was a shimmering ray of hope, like a morning sun rising in the east. The unhurried procession of days before the election spells hope.

As what the Chief Justice said, when Rizal died, he died for a purpose – and died with a symbolic gesture – when, despite holding his final breath, he managed to turn his face towards the flickering rising sun – in the East.

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