The argument that such values as human rights and the right to life are alien to Asian culture and impositions from the West, is not new. But not since the martial law period (1972-1986) and only recently has any Filipino functionary or politician demanded that other countries refrain from criticism of the policies and acts of the Philippine government on precisely that basis.
Singapore’s late Lee Kuan Yew and his successors have contended since the 1960s that compliance with human rights standards and observance of those freedoms often taken for granted in the West are either inapplicable to the developing countries of Asia, damaging to the imperative of economic development, or both irrelevant and dangerous. Lee argued at one point that the reason for the Philippine’s slow development was that it allowed too much dissension in the post-Marcos era, which has led to both gridlock among government institutions such as Congress and the executive, and to prolonged, immobilizing, confusing and pointless debates over policy and other issues in the media and the public sphere.
During the martial law period in the Philippines (1972-1986), among the Marcos terror regime’s justifications for the curtailment of the Bill of rights was that it was a Western imposition via the country’s former colonizer, the United States, whose founding fathers had transported it from the European and English traditions to the New World. The 1936 Philippine Constitution, went the argument, was after all patterned after that of the United States when the Philippines was formally still its colony (1900- 1946).
The antecedents of the Philippine Constitution’s Bill of Rights, argued Marcos regime advocates, go back to the “Magna Carta Libertatum” (Latin for Great Charter of Liberties) of the 13th century, which the English barons in rebellion against King John managed to extract from him upon his defeat in the battle of Bouvines.
The Magna Carta promised the protection of baronial and Church rights, provided limits on the aristocracy’s payments to the Crown, and guaranteed access to swift justice, among other rights. By imposing limits on kingly prerogatives, the Magna Carta put an end to absolute power, which eventually led to the establishment of the English parliament, and consequently, recognition of the rights of the king’s subjects.
But political scientist Onofre Corpuz claimed on one occasion that the Bill of Rights, as a child of the Magna Carta, was irrelevant to Philippine concerns and the interests of Filipinos. No Filipino politician has raised that argument since, because of its tainted use in justifying authoritarian rule. But as euphoria over the promise of meaningful change through the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos at EDSA in 1986 faded, some media commentators argued that “too much freedom,” as supposedly evident in, among other areas, the seemingly limitless focus of the press on monitoring and criticizing government, is responsible for the country’s lagging behind its neighbors.
President Rodrigo Duterte has resurrected that martial law era argument by taking offense at a statement by the European Union (EU) expressing concern over the high cost in lives of the regime’s brutal campaign against the illegal drug trade and the reimposition of the death penalty that’s currently being railroaded through Congress by Duterte’s allies in the lower house.
In another profanity-laced diatribe, Duterte told the EU to leave the Philippine government alone and to “mind its own business,” and declared that the EU was trying to impose its culture on the Philippines. The implication was that the EU is interfering in Philippine internal affairs, in this case in the way the Duterte regime is conducting its campaign against the illegal drug trade and its imminent restoration of the death penalty.
Every country including the Philippines has the right and even obligation to resist any form of foreign interference in its internal affairs. Foreign interference can consist of forcing a country through such means as the threat and actual use of force, the withdrawal or withholding of economic and/ or military aid, or a combination of these and other coercive steps to adopt policies contrary to its own interests and meant to further those of the intervening power. It can also consist of the use of propaganda and the manipulation of information through the media to compel a country to abandon or adopt certain policies or actions.
Some if not most Western countries deserve more than a fair amount of skepticism as to the purity and honesty of their motives when they use human rights as an argument against other countries to mask their real motives, which can include both political and economic aims, as well as to prepare the public mind for direct action against supposedly offending regimes. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq was predicated partly on the argument that Sadam Hussein was violating the rights of his own people. The human rights argument was also used to justify the economic blockade against Cuba for over 50 years.
As deplorable as the use of the human rights argument has been as an instrument of domination, the assumption that human rights as a value are unique only to the West is nevertheless flawed. Not only do international protocols such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) mandate compliance with human rights standards among signatory countries. The human experience across the planet, regardless of boundaries and locations, has also demonstrated the value of the inalienable right to life, the right to a fair trial, freedom of expression — even the right to education and the right to communicate — to the development and improvement of the quality of life of human beings anywhere in the world. During the Barack Obama administration, the US may have been critical of China’s putrid human rights record for the utterly base motive of world domination, but it is nevertheless true that that record deserves condemnation as a hindrance to the making of an informed and politically engaged people.
World War II, which was catastrophic for millions of human beings, was among the driving forces of the global effort to enshrine human rights as inherent in all human beings regardless of race, country, or culture. Only arguably are human rights of Western origin; the reality is that they have become part of the universal human legacy and are not unique to European culture.
On the practical level, the Philippines is a signatory to such international agreements as the UDHR and the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which seeks to abolish the death penalty. The Philippines would be in violation of international law if it restores capital punishment, which incidentally has been abolished in all of Europe except in Belarus.
But Filipinos might well also ask, if in the opinion of the Duterte regime, human rights are unique to the West, does that explain not only why extrajudicial killings (EJKs) are happening unabated and the presumption of innocence ignored, but also why peasant leaders are being harassed and even assassinated, and communities indiscriminately bombed for their supposed support for the New People’s Army (NPA)?
Beyond the legal and practical issues, however, the “Asian values” argument assumes that the cultures of Asian countries do not value the right to a fair trial, the right to life, freedom of expression and of the press, or freedom of assembly — those very rights that, together with the rule of law, add up to the democracy that the Philippines supposedly is, according to Duterte himself when he was asked about his reaction to the filing of impeachment charges against him.
Without those rights democracy is an illusion and a fraud. We’ve been repeatedly told by his spokespersons to “creatively” interpret Duterte’s declarations. This may be one of the many occasions when it’s necessary to do so. By in effect declaring that it is not in Philippine government culture to respect either human rights or its international obligations — only in European culture do they matter — was Duterte telling us and the world something many Filipinos have long suspected?