Mid-2019 saw the creation of the US State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, tasked with providing “advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters. The Commission will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” Frankly, it’s an idea whose time has come.
Human rights, of course, needs to be respected. It is one of the fundamental principles of our society. But to do so, we must be able to face squarely and stand for unequivocally the root and foundation of those human rights.
Thus, to paraphrase of Cardinal John Henry Newman: we have human rights because we have responsibilities. Put another way: we have rights because corollary to those right are duties. They go together.
This is no isolated fringe academic matter. Former Chief Justice Reynato Puno’s spectacularly learned Separate Opinion in Republic vs. Sandiganbayan traced cogently the history and basis of our rights. And it starts with natural law. With disquisitions from Sophocles to Aristotle to Cicero to Aquinas, and then the trinity of political thought: Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.
All that found their way to the US Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” CJ Puno continues to say that “Locke’s modern natural law and rights theory was influential to those who framed and ratified the United States constitution and served as its theoretical foundation is undeniable.”
Natural law considerably influenced international law. The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights has a heavy debt to one man, Jacques Maritain, who believed that human rights being based on natural law, then it can be fairly said that there can be no human right contrary to natural law: “The moral absolutes give legal reasoning its backbone. xxx These moral absolutes which are rationally determined and essentially determinate, constitute the most basic human rights.”
That natural law framework eventually made its way to our 1935 Constitution. Hence, Jorge Coquia once pointed out: “It is understood that the civil and political rights now provided for in the 1973 constitution, as they were in the original constitution, are based on natural law.”
Yet all of that was sought to be overturned by liberal progressives when they hijacked and weaponized rights talk.
Impliedly acknowledging that their advocacies are unacceptable in many countries, human rights activists picked on the tactic of preaching that “sui generis” myth of human rights laws and encouraged judicial activism (i.e., “the living constitution”) to bypass elected legislatures.
Thus the practice of dilution: making everything, from transgenderism to access to Netflix, a human right. The tragic disrespect many governments now have for rights can be blamed squarely on this.
Ironic but foreseeably, liberal progressive activism made human rights utterly incoherent and practically meaningless.
The situation is such that even our Supreme Court deemed it proper to offer this utterly relevant caution (from Ang Ladlad vs. COMELEC, 2010): “not everything that society — or a certain segment of society — wants or demands is automatically a human right. This is not an arbitrary human intervention that may be added to or subtracted from at will. xxx [To do so has] the effect of diluting real human rights.”
So the need to go back to the idea that human rights immutably proceeds from duties, and arising from our inherent human dignity and nature as rational creatures.
The US Commission on Unalienable Rights is a great step in that direction. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted, “many human-rights advocates turned their energy to new categories of rights. These rights often sound noble and just. But when politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments. Unalienable rights are by nature universal. Not everything good, or everything granted by a government, can be a universal right.”
The 15 member Commission is currently chaired by renowned law professor Mary Ann Glendon, and includes such luminaries as Hamza Yusuf Hanson and Christopher Tollefsen. According to Secretary Pompeo, “members will address basic questions: What are our fundamental freedoms? Why do we have them? Who or what grants these rights? How do we know if a claim of human rights is true? … This may sound abstract, but the work is urgent.”
Predictably, liberal progressives are frenziedly attacking the creation of the Commission. Which suggests that it is a good idea indeed. In fact, it may be useful to have something similar here in the Philippines, reporting directly to the president, to provide oversight or advice perhaps regarding the work of the Commission on Human Rights, or even in policy-making or legislation.
Creating such a commission can definitely help towards making Filipino value and respect human rights more profoundly.
Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.