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DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 10 December) — Oh how easily we forget!

Human beings have been gifted with cells in their brains that supposedly allow them to remember events, people, situations, circumstances that they encounter through their lives. They invented a word – MEMORY – to label such a gift from the heavens. From this word are other words like memorable and in memoriam to further cement an acceptance of the need to remember.

They tell legends and stories, come up with various life narratives and have made story-telling an integral part of the everyday life so that they could repeat these stories ad nauseam to make sure these are not forgotten.  When an educational system arose, they made sure to give importance to the subject of HISTORY so that people’s options and choices in life are enlightened from lessons accumulated through time.

There is even the expression that has found its way into literature: Learn the lessons of history otherwise you are condemned to repeating the same mistakes. And one of our greatest heroes – Dr. Jose Rizal – spoke these words: Ang sinuman na hindi marunong lumingon sa kanyang pinanggagalingan ay hindi makakarating sa kanyang patutunguhan.

Human Rights groups in Davao City call for justice and an end to killings and impunity during a candle-lighting ceremony at the main gate of the Redemptorist Church Friday, Dec. 9, eve of the commemoration of International Human Rights Day. MindaNews photo by Carolyn O. Arguillas

But here we are at a very crucial juncture of our history as a nation-State and we find ourselves in a state of amnesia.  We have forgotten so many lessons of our country’s history or it seems as if we do not care to give value to these lessons.

It seemed only yesterday when a considerable percentage of the Filipino people would wear with pride the badge of being a human rights advocate. This was – consciously or unconsciously – an affirmation of the country’s place in the company of other nation-States of the free world that gathered together in 1948 under the United Nations to approve the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  For whoever represented the nation in that ceremonial signing of the Charter, affixed a signature on behalf of the Filipino people who knew very well the value of human rights, given what they underwent under the horrendous Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1946.

Indeed, the human rights discourse took on a very noble profile since 1948 when an enlightened world – reeling under the impact of a global war when atrocities were committed against innocent civilians across the world –  committed to end all kinds of human rights violations.  Of course, the signing of this UN Charter did not end human rights violations in a few more countries after World War II, as autocratic and authoritarian regimes – of a whole range of ideological and political persuasions –  wrought havoc on their civilian populations, especially those opposing injustices and oppression.

Our own country’s turn to go through such a despotic rule came in 1972 when an ambitious President – whose name again recently hit the headlines of our broadsheets and TV news stories – decided that he had absolute power over the Republic’s citizenry. With absolute power, he ruled absolutely, deciding on who would live abundantly (as in sharing bountiful blessings along with the conjugal dictators)  and who should be and could be killed to keep himself in power.  A whole generation of idealistic youth then got introduced to the human rights discourse.

That was how our generation of young people got to know about the UN Charter of Human Rights. We didn’t learn it in school, as it was never taught in any of our political science subjects.  But forced to defend ourselves from being victims of a despotic regime, we took on the armor of a Charter that the country did sign in 1948. The document became “one of the weapons of the weak.” Where Marcos would hit us by militarization, torture and forced disappearances, we fought back with “words” that held power.

Mimeographing machines (as we had none of the sophisticated gadgets of the post-IT era) got busy duplicating copies of the Charter which we translated into our various languages and distributed to thousands everywhere (even as this was declared a subversive material). We had study sessions on this till the wee hours of the morning wherever we could gather away from the military’s gaze.

In time, we became bona-fide human rights advocates!  And we wore that badge proudly.  As with any movement, we began as a small group of concerned citizens. In Davao City, there was the Citizen’s Council for Justice and Peace (CCJP) that spearheaded the “legal” movement to popularize human rights advocacy work. In time, the AMRSP’s (Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines) Task Force Detainees (TFD) got on board. Within a year a few more informal groups arose as more activities got organized especially in terms of documentation of human rights abuses, advancing the rights of political prisoners, popularizing the rights of trade union and peasant union organizations. More and more young people got drawn in this nascent social movement.  A full decade after martial law was declared there was a nationwide movement for justice, peace, truth and freedom.

Fast forward to 1983, when a blatant murder under the gaze of media people took place at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport. When Senator Ninoy Aquino was killed, the nation was on the brink of advancing its dissent against the regime to finally end martial rule. Three more years would pass before what we thought was the end of the Marcos dictatorship would unfold (for who knew then that the Marcoses could find themselves again in power?). At the heart of that protest movement was the people’s conviction that the State should respect their human rights.

So when finally that regime collapsed (with Marcos, his family and cronies pushed out of power and forced to get out of the country), Mrs. Aquino’s government recognized how important the human rights discourse was for the country rehabilitation. So the 1987 Constitution made sure that it integrated provisions for human rights. And when Congress was established, a law was passed to establish the Commission on Human Rights.

And so we thought we had learned the lessons of the past that led to martial rule and the ensuing human rights violations through all these interventions.

Who knew that it would only take 30 years later (just barely through one generation-and-a-half) that we would be back to where we began?  And this time around, human rights would become “a dirty word” just because this discourse does not suit the present administration’s priority response to the country’s ills?

And today in Davao City – where once the nation witnessed the rise of an urban center that had a clear dissenting voice against martial rule – we would see and hear street kids singing a Christmas rap in the streets proclaiming that here in this city “walay balaod sa human rights!” (there is no law on human rights).

In the wake of the burial of the dictator in the Libingan ng mga Bayani and the persistence of the extra-judicial killings (EJKs), various informal groups have attempted to openly denounce these in Davao City’s streets. Only a handful joined but thankfully, these were attended by millennials.  But the broad population – constituting the 95% of Davao City residents who still give the Duterte administration a satisfactory rating – would ignore such open dissent. Very few of the media would even cover such events.

Yesterday at the gate of our church along Bajada St., fronting Abreeza Mall, there was not even a hundred of us who gathered to once more trumpet the importance of human rights on the eve of the day to commemorate the 1948 signing of the UN HR Charter. Gazing at the flickering  candles as the darkness of night deepened, I thought: where have all the human rights advocates gone?

Quoting Joan Baez anti-war song:  “Gone to graveyard, everyone?”

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. He is author of several books, including Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations, and two books on Davao’s history launched in December 2015 — Davao in the Pre-Conquest Era and the Age of Colonization and Si Menda u gang Baganin’ng gitahspan nga mao si Mangulayon. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw)]

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