Sons are meant to be as great as their fathers, and such is the legacy that Jose Manuel ‘Chel’ Icasiano Diokno seeks to uphold. As one of today’s top human rights lawyers in the Philippines, Diokno followed in his father’s footsteps. The son of the late Senator Jose W. Diokno, the first Chairperson of the Presidential Committee on Human Rights, predecessor to what is now the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), and the founder of Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) during the Martial Law Era, the younger Diokno currently serves as the chairman of FLAG, which continues its work for the protection of human rights and civil liberties. Diokno graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman before studying law at the Northern Illinois University from 1983 to 1986. He was a member of the Presidential Human Rights Committee during the term of President Fidel V. Ramos. Diokno was also a member of the Committee on Human Rights and Due Process of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) in the 1990s, and is currently the Presidential Adviser on Human Rights of the IBP. Diokno became the founding dean of the De La Salle University College of Law in 2010. Wishing to serve his country further, Diokno filed his candidacy for senator in the 2019 general elections as he continues to make justice and human rights his main advocacy.
I believe it is time we talk about justice and make it part of the priority of government.
I cannot imagine my children growing up in a country where there is no accountability, where we do not address criminality or corruption. The word we use is ‘impunity,’ and it is about time that justice be a core issue.
1. Of the many problems that plague our country today, which will be your priority?
My priority is really justice, and it has many faces—justice from the courts, environmental justice, gender justice, social justice, cultural justice (the rights of indigenous peoples), and economic justice. The problem is that our justice system is in a very bad condition, and our politicians are not talking about it. They don’t want to talk about justice because justice is about accountability, and maybe they are afraid of being held accountable.
Justice is also about empowerment. By giving justice to the marginalized and the poor, they are empowered. Perhaps the politicians are afraid that when the poor get empowered and enlightened, they might not vote for them anymore. I believe it is time we talk about justice and make it part of the priority of government. I cannot imagine my children growing up in a country where there is no accountability, where we have widespread criminality and corruption.
Ang hustisya dapat ay para sa lahat, hindi lang sa mga malalaking tao. Ang talagang nangangailan ng hustisya sa ating bayan ay ang mga nasa laylayan ng ating lipunan. Dapat pag may sala, may parusa, mayaman man o mahirap, at ako naman ay handang maglingkod para ipagtanggol ang katarungan at sana ay maging boses ng katarungan sa senado (Justice should be for all, not just for the privileged, and even more for the marginalized sectors of our society. If there is wrongdoing, there must be punishment, whether rich or poor, and I am ready to fight for justice and hopefully be the voice of justice in the senate).
2. As a lawyer, what is your solution for declogging the courts in order to improve our justice system?
Aside from moving business and commercial disputes into arbitration, we need to fill the vacancies in the judiciary and prosecution service. At present, about 20% of our trial courts have no judges; while about 30% of our prosecutorial positions are also vacant. Imagine a hospital that requires 100 doctors and 100 nurses but is lacking by one-third, they will not be able to treat the existing and incoming patients. That is what is happening to our judiciary. Until those vacancies are filled, we will never be able to speed up the justice system.
But filling up the vacancies is not enough. The process of appointing judges has become highly politicized. There is a perception that if you do not have a ‘backer,’ your application to the judiciary won’t move forward, even if you are qualified. Because of that dynamic, the process of choosing judges and filling in those vacancies is affected. That has to change.
The people, moreover, have lost their confidence in our courts. A lot of the poor that I represent, they no longer believe they will be given justice. We need to restore the people’s confidence in the judiciary. How? First, we need to ensure that the corrupt judges are held accountable. We have to face the reality that there are corrupt judges, but they are not being investigated by the Ombudsman because there is jurisprudence saying the Ombudsman cannot investigate judges unless the Supreme Court (SC) investigates them first. If a judge has friends in the Court, he may never be investigated by the SC, and cannot be investigated by the Ombudsman. My position is, at the very least, the Ombudsman should be given the power to investigate and conduct lifestyle checks on judges to regain the trust and confidence of the people.
There also has to be more transparency in terms of access to the Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALN) of our justices. Republic Act (R.A.) No. 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees is clear: all officials from all branches of government should submit a SALN, and any citizen can obtain a copy of the SALN. However, the SC in 2012 promulgated special rules different from R.A. 6713. It imposed additional requirements such as that the application must be done under oath; or if you are from the media, you must prove that you belong to an accredited organization; and the release of the SALN is no longer a ministerial act, as it is required to be calendared and deliberated by the Court. This is not what R.A. 6713 provides. Even the courts should follow what is the national law. These are the important issues that have to be addressed to restore public confidence to the judiciary.
3. Does the country have enough laws to enforce human rights? If it does, where do the problems lie?
Yes, we have enough laws. In terms of civil and political rights, we have the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act, Anti-Torture Act, and R.A. No. 9851 or the Law on Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. So, I am very happy with that. In terms of women’s rights, there are many laws that protect women. For children, we are a party to the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as domestic laws that protect children. We also have laws to protect our IPs. Almost all sectors have existing legal protections, but the problem lies in the implementation. Personally, I am very sad about the state of human rights because, until 2016, human rights was becoming more and more accepted even among the military and the police. There were human rights offices in the AFP and the PNP, and we in the human rights community would even conduct trainings for soldiers and police personnel. But in 2016 there was a shift—perhaps in attitude, to be tactful about it—in terms of human rights. Now, human rights are no longer given priority. For instance, under Administrative Order (AO) No. 35 [series 2012] issued by the previous administration, the extrajudicial killing of journalists and activists was made a priority for the PNP and Department of Justice (DOJ). I was one of those who conducted the trainings for this and we went around the country training policemen and prosecutors on how to conduct such proper investigations of these cases. But now, that is no longer a priority.
I’m ready to serve and defend justice and hopefully be a voice of justice in the Senate.
4. What amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act do you propose to promote drug problem as more of a health issue than a criminal issue?
The media has a problem with the law because they are required to witness and sign off on the inventories prepared by the police when they conduct drug raids. Many members of the media have come to me saying, ‘Attorney, wala naman ako doon nung sinearch yung bahay. Bakit nila ako pinapapirma na parang pinalalabas na nandun ako?’ (Attorney, I wasn’t even there when they search the house. Why are they making me sign [the document], to make it appear that I was there?) There is now an ongoing petition by journalists to amend that portion of the law to dispense with the requirement for the presence of the media, which I agree with.
The other point I wish to make is really a bigger issue. The overall thrust of our drug laws is to treat drug possession and use as a criminal offense and not a health issue. That’s because we copied our drug laws from the United States (US) and that was their approach before. But for the US, this was in the 1970s. Their laws have changed now, while our laws still have the same approach that it is a purely criminal matter. The modern approach is: if you are a user, you have an illness that has to be addressed—not by putting you in jail, but by giving you the proper treatment. That is the more modern approach, and to me, the more civilized way of approaching the problem. If you look at other countries, it has worked, as substance abuse there has gone down. Now, the approach of our government is different; they are treating it purely as a criminal matter. With the war on drugs, it has become more than what the law provides. It has become a case of justice coming from guns rather than the courts. We have questioned this before the courts. We agree that there is a problem with drugs and that we should address it, but what is the right way to do it?
The other point that must be emphasized—and this is not anymore just the drugs law—is that we should stop using lists. What happens is the government comes out with supposed narco-lists, drug lists, even alleged communist-front lists, but these are not based on evidence. For example, in the very first narco-list that came out soon after the start of this administration, the name of a judge who was already dead was included. The living judges then thought, ‘kung yung mga patay na nga na judge naisama eh pano pa kaya kami? Napakadali na ilagay ang aming pangalan sa listahan (If even deceased judges were included in the list, what more for the living judges? It is so easy to include our names on the list).’ This has adversely affected the independence of the judiciary and that is one of the dangers of using lists. The other danger is, I have many people come to me saying, ‘Attorney, ’yung pangalan ko nasa listahan wala naman akong kinalaman sa drugs. Eh kasi nakaaway ko ang barangay captain kaya siguro ako nailagay sa listahan (My name was on the list even if I am not involved in drugs. Maybe it’s because I fought with the barangay captain).’ It is very disturbing because once your name is on the list, it is very hard to remove your name. You can be subjected to tokhang or even extrajudicial killing if your name is on the list. So, we should stop using these lists because the process for filing a case based on evidence is already there. Historically, the Japanese used lists to search for guerrillas and Hitler used lists to exterminate Jews. Hindi makatarungan at makatao ang paggamit ng listahan (It is not just or humane to use lists).
5. What other laws do you propose, aside from bills seeking to address the justice system, human rights, and drugs war?
I have quite an extensive legislative platform. In terms of the environment, we need to seriously shift to renewable energy. We cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels, coal plants, and the like because it is so bad for the environment. Second, water is going to become a big issue within the next 20 years. I believe the government should already start thinking about how we’re going to deal with this problem, because the studies show it is going to be a big problem. Third is climate change and how it has brought about harsher typhoons and weather. We should be prepared for that. We have laws, we have the Climate Change Commission, but it needs more attention because it has become a more pressing concern.
In terms of the urban poor I support the on-site, in-city resettlement bill. It provides that resettlement of poor people should be humane and should be done in consultation with them. It should also be, as much as possible, within the same area where they were staying before, and the basic necessities should be provided. When they are forcibly relocated somewhere far away where there is no opportunity for work and no basic services are provided, they end up going back to where they were before. That should not be the case, so I support this pending bill.
In terms of the local government, I am in favor of accelerating the devolution of powers from the national government or, basically, more decentralization. It is good that our SC came out with a decision that the just share of LGU’s should be sourced from all national taxes, not only national internal revenue taxes. But recently, I was talking to local government officials who told me that the SC decision has not yet been implemented. But even more than that, we have to find ways to really decentralize because the closest government to the people is really the local government. At the same time, we have to make sure that local government officials are equipped with the rights skills, training, and resources to do their jobs properly.There are some local governments that are very progressive. For instance, sa Naga City, ang ganda-ganda ng pagpapatakbo nila doon (their way of running the local government is very efficient) and it is very participatory because the people’s organizations are involved in the budget process as well as the implementation of projects. As a result, the people are part of the decision-making process and they feel like they are part of it instead of being distant from the government. That is why I support the People’s Empowerment Bill. If we just strengthen our local government units within the existing Constitution, that is sufficient [and there is no need for federalism].
6. What is your solution for the congestion in Metro Manila?
It is really a lack of urban planning, which we have not had ever since. When a new administration comes in, it discontinues the programs done by the previous administration. Minsan pa nga, binabaliktad nila (Sometimes, they even undo the work). There has to be a long-term, a 25- or 50-year plan that the government will follow. Of course, you can tweak it, but it should basically remain the same all throughout. There were moves during the previous administration to do that, but I am uncertain if the current administration is continuing it. One pending bill I support is the National Land Use Act. Right now, the use of our land is governed by local governments. In one city, you can do this, but go to another city, you cannot. We have to find a way to rationalize that; at least establish the minimum standards for all LGU’s.
7. What are your plans for improving the agricultural and industrial sector of the country?
We need to modernize our agricultural sector. We need to find ways to improve the lives of our farmers, their quality of life, and their standard of living. At the same time, we need to make it attractive so that their children and others will continue farming. The average age of farmers nowadays is 59-60 years old and if you talk to their children, they do not want to be farmers kasi` ang hirap ng buhay (because it is a difficult way of living). If that continues, much of the land that we now use to farm eventually will be developed into other uses, and then, where will we get our food? We cannot always just import all our food. Yes, we may need to import from time to time, but when you make it into a law like the Rice Tarification Act without giving any attention to the local farmers, there will come a point when we they will not be able to produce the food we need. So we have to provide the farmers with the understanding, the know-how, the resources, and equipment they need to give them a better life.
For the industrial sector, I definitely think we should be able to manufacture our own products, particularly steel. It is sad that in the ’60s, we were already on the way to doing that and then, suddenly, the economic policies shifted and that was discontinued.
8. What is your stand on the current relations between the Philippines and China, and in relation to the United States?
Let me answer that by saying we are mandated to have an independent foreign policy and that means, independent of any other country. To me, it is not just a question of China or even the United States, because whichever country it may be, we should have an independent foreign policy. As far as our relationship with China is concerned, I agree that we need to maintain good relations with them because it is a powerful country and our neighbor, but at the same time, we must assert our sovereignty and self-determination. I am concerned by what is happening in the West Philippine Sea. We are being perceived by other countries as having surrendered our territory.I would not want that to happen. I strongly believe that we should assert that that is our territory because the arbitral ruling is very clear and we should enforce it. I’m not saying that we should engage in war with China as we would not be in a position to win that war militarily, but we can always use diplomacy and international relations.
Apart from this, I am concerned about the lack of transparency in the agreements signed with China. The government, as far as I know, has not disclosed the contents of these agreements. We do not know what are the terms and conditions, if they would be onerous or prejudicial to the interests of our country. I believe we are entitled to see the contracts. With regard to foreign workers taking jobs in our country, we should tighten up the law and implement the existing law properly, which provides that we can hire foreign workers only if there are no skilled Filipino workers available. From what I’ve gathered, we have skilled workers who can do the same jobs, so why are we allowing foreigners to come in? I have nothing against them, but the ones most in need of jobs are our countrymen and women, and they should be given priority.
9. For a generation who is not familiar with the late Senator Jose W. Diokno, can you refresh the memory of his significance in Philippine politics and history? How will you continue his legacy?
My father was a senator for many years before Martial Law was declared. As a senator, he was the author of economic legislation like the Omnibus Investment Incentives Act, among others. Initially, he was really known as a statesman among politicians, and he was an outstanding senator for all the terms he sat in the senate. Many people forget that part of his career because they know him as the father of human rights. In 1972, he was arrested without any warrant and no case being filed against him. He was imprisoned for two years without any reason at all. When he was released in 1974, he turned his back on politics and concentrated on being a human rights lawyer. In effect, he dedicated the rest of his life to handling cases for free. At the time, ‘human rights’ was not yet part of our vocabulary; he was just a lawyer who gave free legal aid to those who needed it, especially those who were the subject of abuse by the government. He focused on helping poor communities being demolished by the government, workers who were being taken out of their jobs, and cases like that. He did those things because he felt we needed to restore law in the country.
Now that we have justice coming from the barrels of guns, it is very similar to what had happened before. At that time, all the branches of government bowed only to one man because Marcos, the chief executive, had lawmaking powers and also captured the judiciary because he could remove any justice or judge anytime. My father was one of the first to stand up to the dictatorship at the time when everybody was afraid, and the fear was very justified kasi ’pag magsalita ka noon, huhulihin ka, o kung hindi man, papatayin ka (because if you spoke up, they will put you in jail or possibly kill you). Nonetheless, he fought the fear and decided he needed to stand up for the people. It is because of him and others like him that we have the rights and freedoms we enjoy today. Whenever I have the chance, I tell the young people that if not for those few people who stood up to the dictatorship, we would not be enjoying the freedoms we have today—to use Facebook, to speak freely, and so on.
I have continued his legacy as a member and now the chairperson of FLAG, the human rights organization that he founded. As a FLAG lawyer, I have handled cases and continue to handle cases involving all kinds of human rights violations. I have handled cases of enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, and have fought for the rights of teachers, students, fisherfolk, and farmers, among others.
10. Despite the difficulties and dangers of your advocacy, how will you inspire the generation of today to follow in your lead?
In the last 30 years, I have received a number of death threats. I have been the subject of surveillance, and even electric monitoring. You kind of get used to it. You take the necessary precautions, but it comes with the territory: if you are a human rights lawyer or even just a regular litigator, chances are you will receive threats. But I do not let these deter me. I simply look at the young people of today. Actually, it is the youth that inspire me. I’ll give you concrete examples. When the SC decision on the Marcos burial came out, there was a young woman—the press took a picture of her—who went by herself to the gates of the Libingan ng mga Bayani to protest of the burial of Marcos. That was to me very heartwarming, that there was this young person who was not affiliated with any group and not related to any victim who went there as a form of protest. She simply said, ‘I just felt it was wrong.’ Another example is a young teacher of a lumad school who is under threat. Her mother was even abducted, and yet she was still speaking openly about what is happening in Mindanao, even if the military was pressuring her not to say anything. She is speaking out because she believes that it is not right and something has to be done about it. These are the real heroes of our country. — MAIELLE MONTAYRE