[OPINION] Redefining Rights

September 28, 2017 at 14:14

Redefining rights

Security, the Philippines told the United Nations, need not be incompatible with human rights.

True enough. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will agree. So will the Communist Party of China. It sounds more credible, of course, coming from Asia’s most rambunctious democracy.

In reality, much of Asia has always had a problem with Western concepts of civil liberties and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration was passed in 1948 with memories still fresh of the unspeakable horrors committed during the World War II Holocaust.

 I’ve heard representatives of many Asian governments arguing that each country faces different challenges and the rights declaration is not a case of one size fits all. This is hardly a new argument. From the start, when the 18-member UN Commission on Human Rights was drawing up the universal declaration in 1947, reservations were raised by the vice chair and representative of China, Peng Chun Chang.

The late US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s widow Eleanor, who chaired the commission, narrated in her memoir:

“Dr. Chang was a pluralist and held forth in charming fashion on the proposition that there is more than one kind of ultimate reality.  The Declaration, he said, should reflect more than simply Western ideas and Dr. Humphrey would have to be eclectic in his approach.  His remark, though addressed to Dr. Humphrey, was really directed at Dr. Malik, from whom it drew a prompt retort as he expounded at some length the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.  Dr. Humphrey joined enthusiastically in the discussion, and I remember that at one point Dr. Chang suggested that the Secretariat might well spend a few months studying the fundamentals of Confucianism!”

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Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew argued that economic rights should have priority over certain civil liberties. The prosperity of his city-state has been seen as an indication of the success of his ideas.

Asia has prosperous, vibrant democracies, such as Japan and South Korea. India is thriving in its democratic setting. But why make them role models when success stories such as Singapore offer an alternative?

China won’t admit it, but its national development tack must have been inspired by the Singaporean model. Lee’s kindred contemporary, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, subscribed to similar ideas about human rights.

Some years ago I sat through an official briefing in Singapore about its concept of press freedom. In a nutshell, the information minister explained that media organizations are businesses and must be regulated as tightly as other businesses. Journalists are not elected, he said, and must disseminate information and express opinions with utmost responsibility and accountability, subject to state regulation, and taking into consideration national interest and the greater good.

I know several prominent Filipinos who share the same views about the role of mass media. China, the only country I have visited where my regular email from human rights groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists are blocked, has similar views.

A few years ago in China, I was handed a copy of the official declaration of the rights of Chinese citizens. The rights listed in detail in the pamphlet largely reflect those in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Lest the Chinese start believing that they will soon have a Western-style free society, however, the pamphlet is also replete with reminders about the responsibilities of citizens in exercising the rights. The unwritten message is that irresponsibility in the exercise of the rights will have unpleasant consequences.

I’m not sure if that pamphlet was ever fully disseminated to Chinese citizens. Back in 2001, a journalist working in southern China told me that their publication was free to criticize local government officials, but the military and Communist Party were off-limits. I don’t think the unspoken rules have changed much.

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The economic success of states such as China and Singapore present an attractive alternative to societies that abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

During the presidency of Corazon Aquino, Lee Kuan Yew scoffed openly at Philippine democracy. There are Filipinos who are also frustrated over our democratic excesses.

Democratic processes such as elections are used in our country as a veneer to legitimize the reign of warlords, mafia-type family businesses, jueteng lords, and now, narco politicians.

While people may be ready to sacrifice certain civil liberties in the name of economic progress and peace and order, however, the right to life is a different story.

Because of our broken justice system, Filipinos can look away when known criminals are executed by police. Pinoys probably wouldn’t mind either if certain abusive, drug-addled lawmakers with a bloated sense of entitlement are shot and their heads wrapped in packing tape.

But we can see a different public reaction to the execution of teenagers, and to police drug raids on private homes that are more akin to armed robbery.

Even those who think Filipinos’ exuberant exercise of freedoms borders on anarchy, and who agree that security measures and the war on drugs need not be incompatible with human rights, are now drawing a line as police abuses become brazenly horrific.

People are starting to be sick of summary executions. There are groups that are now gathering evidence, and teaching others to document abuses, to hold state forces accountable for gross human rights violations.

The war on drugs is supposed to make law-abiding citizens safe. Instead people feel unsafe even in their own homes, with police posing the most serious threat to public safety.

How much personal freedoms are we willing to sacrifice in the name of security? We’re adding another dimension to the redefinition of human rights. It should not be a cause for national regret.

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BANKING GLITCHES: Aside from slow internet speed and erratic cell phone signals, we suffer from crummy banking services, with nowhere to turn to for relief.

Yesterday I tried to withdraw cash from the EastWest Bank ATM at our office. I got a receipt but not the cash. A woman at the bank hotline said I could try again after an hour. If not, I’ll have to wait until Friday. Or else I have to go to an EastWest Bank branch for an over-the-counter transaction. I was told that others in our office have suffered the same inconvenience in the past.

With their billions in assets, you’d think banks can afford quality ATMs.

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