BEYOND THE BEND: Right to Life vs Right to Live

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 13 May) – The controversy over the number of deaths being linked to the War on Drugs is explosive. But the process of determining who should be accountable for them is utterly vitriolic. In fact, for making a direct accusation, one lawmaker has paid the price with incarceration.

The scorching debate on this issue has found its way to my daily public commute. An Uber driver ferrying me to a meeting casually remarked the killings reminded him of the Metrocom reign of terror during Martial Law.

The Metrocom was one state instrument used by the Marcos dictatorship to “eliminate” those who oppose his rule. Accounts of assassinations and summary executions perpetuated by this group are well-documented. For exactly this reason, the Metrocom comparison is actually easy to make. The concept of “state-sponsored targeted killing” denotes the use of lethal force, legally attributable to the state, with the intent to kill selected persons who are not in the physical custody of those targeting them. If we look at the news reporting on the War on Drugs, it is only natural to suspect that the deaths arising from this government effort falls within this category.

The Metrocom comparison also makes the interference of the international community inevitable. Given the global attention given to the Martial Law atrocities, we should not be surprised that the outside world has taken notice of the gruesome deaths and the grieving families that have become media staples. The member-states of the United Nations (UN) expressing their deep concern about the impact of the War on Drugs on the general population is thus to be expected.

Furthermore, the UN already has a very clear view of the issue at hand. All acts and omissions of state representatives that constitute a violation of the general recognition of the right to life embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as other treaties, resolutions, conventions and declarations adopted by competent UN bodies, fall within the understanding of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

The underlying truth in this UN determination is that governments have the inherent obligation to protect the citizens’ right to life. Indeed, this mandate is part and parcel of the “social contract” in a constitutional democracy. All officials of government therefore, carry this mantel in the performance of their duties and functions.

Interestingly, the Right to Life paradigm is not inconsistent with the aims of the War on Drugs. As explained in the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Handbook (Chapter on USE OF FORCE BY LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIALS):

“In fact, under human rights law, States’ duty to respect and to ensure the right to life entails an obligation to exercise ‘due diligence’ to protect the lives of individuals from attacks by criminals, including terrorists. Lethal force under human rights law is legal if it is strictly and directly necessary to save life.”

Ostensibly, I think it is safe to assume that those who blatantly and unapologetically harm us and destroy our way of life have lost their right to live in our community. Nevertheless, it is still incumbent upon the administration to convince the public that in conducting the War on Drugs, they are exercising “due diligence” to respect the right to life of all citizens. Merely claiming that this is a policy they are abiding with is not enough. They have to present demonstrable acts that unequivocally evince efforts to protect the people’s right to life.

I think the number of doubters will significantly diminish if public prosecutors show that they are aggressively pursuing the persons responsible for the lives lost and destroyed in the name of the War on Drugs. The plain fact is whatever label you tack on these deaths, they are crimes that need to be prosecuted to the hilt. Getting the perpetuators is the only way for justice to be served.

I predict as well that many critics of the administration’s anti-drug strategy will be silenced if the Public Attorney’s Office establish a visible relentless effort in ensuring the constitutional rights of indigent drug suspects are respected by members of the police force. More importantly, if the office likewise shows that violators of these rights will be held to account in court. Not allowing the police to run rampant with authority is key in protecting the people’s right to life.

No Filipino would ever want to return to the dark days of the Metrocom. The notable activism of the Commission on Human Rights in engaging with the War on Drugs is a reminder that we are not there yet. And to a certain extent, it is also an assurance that it is still possible we will never ever get to that point at all.

I must mention though, that the silence of specific agencies within the executive branch that are tasked to enforce constitutional rights, such as the right to life, only diminishes the legitimacy of the President’s anti-drug campaign. The leaders of these offices should bear mind that no Filipino wants this administration to lose this particular war.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a practicing lawyer. He is the author of the book, Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective. He researches on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.)