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Human Rights Under Assault: The Urgent Tasks for Progressives

Keynote speech by Etta Rosales
Challenges and Outlook to Asian Social Democracy
24 May 2017, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia


To our gracious hosts from the Mongolian People’s Party, to our partners in the Network for Social Democracy in Asia, especially our members of parliaments joining us today, to the leaders and emissaries of our sister parties to our friends from all over the world, thank you for allowing me to share some thoughts here with you today.

You may be aware that I come from a country where today, the President is actively engaged in disparaging and undermining the progressive ideas we stand for as a community. In the name of a popular campaign against illegal drugs which has claimed more than 9,000 lives, human rights and due process under the law have become collateral damage. And this is happening not only in the Philippines.

Across the region, reports from Human Rights Watch and even the US State Department point out critical patterns of abuse, discrimination and violence against minorities and opposition forces.

In Cambodia trade unions and anti-government forces are systematically attacked under laws that restrict freedoms of assembly under the guise of national security. More than 200000 prisoners are locked up in 27 jails that can only accommodate 11,000; and pre-trial detention of 6 months and 18 months for misdemeanors and felonies.


In Thailand the military junta retains its grip on power with an interim Constitution that allows it to maintain control over the military and civilian institutions. Through emergency decrees issued by the junta detention for 30 days without filing of charges is now allowed, and allows military officers to arrest and detain suspects for 27 violations that range from trafficking to defamation to arms smuggling.

In Indonesia the conviction of Governor Ahok poses a danger to the long standing tradition of tolerance and signals a worrying trend of rising religious-based militancy.

In Malaysia, leaders of Bersih 5, the movement calling for political and electoral reforms and fighting against corruption in the Najib government  were arrested (including Howard Lee who is IUSY President), violating their rights to freedom of assembly and speech.

In my country, the rejection of aid from the European Union on the premise that these contain conditionalities, puts at risk my country’s commitments to international commitments to human rights and the rule of law. In the long run, much needed support that could have otherwise gone to needy communities especially Mindanao, will be lost and economic opportunities (EU being the country’s third largest trading partner and biggest export market worth $901 million) depriving small and medium enterprises of their livelihood, and workers, of jobs.

These examples show us that our values, our principles as progressives are truly not only undermined, they are under attack. We have to assume such a baseline if we are to conduct any exercise in envisioning a just and fair world. The political context is unbending to compromise, and seems uninhabitable for key principles that define progressives: compassion, justice, solidarity and human rights.

In such a context, we as progressives are called upon to articulate our shared vision of an alternative future where inequality is banished; where the rights of every citizen is protected and promoted. It is a vision of a society where our safety, our well-being, should never have to come at the expense of another human life.

How to do this? In my work in the Philippines as Chair of its Commission on Human Rights, and around the region as a human rights champion, and for a time chair of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights I have seen a dearth in the understanding of the very same sets of rights that lie at the core of what we as progressives are fighting for.

Education, health, reproductive rights, housing, the right to organize, freedom of speech and assembly -- all these are but the manifestation of our peoples’ aspirations and longings. Their realization, protection, and promotion – together, for all, and without any hierarchy – is the very reason we have earned the right to be called progressives.

However we need to be able to reclaim the space in which peoples are able to appreciate and link the meaning of a better future with human rights. We need to articulate the centrality of human rights as inalienable entitlements that are inherent in every human being. 

We can do this by showing our societies that human rights have been with us for a long time. They may have been codified after the horrors of the world wars when the United Nations was formed. But throughout recorded history, there are rich examples of the idea of human rights.

In ancient Mesopotamia, the Code of King Hammurabi also laid out a total of 282 laws that regulated relations and transactions between individuals based on social status. Only one provision imposes obligations on an official. The provision establishes that a judge who reaches an incorrect decision is to be fined and removed from the bench permanently. The Magna Carta signed by King John established that no one, not even the king is above the rule of law.

Outside of the Magna Carta (1215) - the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (1791) were among the written social and political contracts that gave rise to the spirit of many of today’s human rights instruments. Yet these contracts came about as a result of bloody wars between oppressed peoples and the power wielders. While recognizing the progress of western peoples in many of these documents, when originally translated into policy, they excluded women, men of color, certain groups of different religion, belief, ethnic origin. At the same time, it was these same sets of principles defining equality and non-discrimination under the protection of law that inspired oppressed peoples to rise up in arms and assert the right to self-determination.

It is this same historical reality that we seek to explain when we go around communities in my home country. In this strategy I find there is an empowering process that starts when we explain human rights and how it has evolved as a natural subtlety of human existence and organization, to the grassroots.

In engaging communities, we learn that the marginalized and the disempowered will show a willingness to stand up and mobilize, if we bring the principles of human rights closer to them and make these relatable. 

This is particularly true for women. Mothers and daughters of victims of violence are at the forefront of the fight to hold government accountable for the violation of citizens’ rights due to the ongoing campaign against illegal drugs in the Philippines. Women will play a crucial role in asserting human rights and defending democracy from the onslaught of regressive politics.

The call for us as progressives therefore, is to go back to the basics of organizing our base as social democrats, socialists and progressives. We need more activists on the ground, fighting the good fight against tyranny and exclusion wherever we find it and in whatever form it takes. Oppression is no more as pronounced as it is today, with more and more people being left behind by development, when progress is constructed as the process of the majority losing out so that a few may win. Human rightsnegates that framework for the essence of human rights is that we strive to make sure no one should be left behind.

I find that a critical mass of new partnerships are available for mobilizing under the broad call to respect the dignity and inviolability of human life. While we conduct village level education drives, we also maximize spaces available with structures such as anti-drug abuse councils at the city levels, to reframe their notion of enforcing the campaign by infusing it with a rights-based approach.

We also work closely with parishes and pastoral councils to mobilize the faithful who are in a strategic position to reach out to schools as well. This community of church workers, once enabled with a human rights lens, provides a fertile and rich ground for enabling the communities within the Diocese to assert human rights and help combat the violence in their beleaguered communities.

The emancipatory potential of human rights thus demonstrates itself when we harmonize various actors together and when it is frontloaded in our platforms and our advocacies.  The violation and the absence of rights begin the conversation of flawed institutions, which exposes questions of power, and by extension we begin to advance our shared cause for social justice.

It is I thus my hope that our conversations here today allow us to imagine the necessary partnerships and coalitions that can present a united front against the exploitation on which extremist, populist politics draws its power from.

May we find, rediscover and amplify our strategies as progressives through shared platforms such as SocDem Asia, to illuminate the path before us. For even as the darkness consumes the night, it will eventually give way to daylight, and with it, a fair and just future in which we as progressives lead from the front, with a clear vision, and unrelenting mission.

Thank you once again and I look forward to our discussions.