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Democracy and ‘The Right to the City’

democracy and the right to the city - Democracy and ‘The Right to the City’

This coming Sunday, Sept. 15, the world is being invited by the United Nations (UN) to commemorate the International Day of Democracy. Since the adoption of Resolution 7 by the UN General Assembly during its 62nd Session in 2007, the UN has committed, in word and institutional deed, to “to focus attention on the promotion and consolidation of democracy at all levels and reinforce international cooperation in this regard.”

It is also appropriate to remember that the Philippines was part of spearheading this process within the UN. The inaugural International Conference of New or Restored Democracies (ICNRD) was held in Manila in 1988, just two years after the victory of the 1986 EDSA Revolution. ICNRD processes have contributed to the normalization of democratic ideas, principles and institutional arrangements as global standards.

That said, even the United Nations cannot ignore that global developments over the past few decades threaten to hollow out its project for global democracy. Even its 2019 commemoration platforms readily admit how at this very moment, “civic space is shrinking worldwide at an alarming rate. Civil society activists are finding it increasingly difficult to operate. Human rights defenders and parliamentarians are under attack. Women remain vastly under-represented. Journalists face interference, and in some cases violence.”

This sheer contradiction makes us ask if we who believe in democracy can do anything against the reckless hatred of democratic standards by current governments worldwide — the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte included. We must assert that the actual substance of democratic values in any society can never be measured by manufactured and ill-informed populist posturings. It can only be judged by the observation and protection of universal human rights.

When we speak of “human rights,” we must not limit ourselves to basic “first-generation” rights. By this, we refer to civil and political rights guaranteed to every individual citizen by state fiat. Unreliability of access to these has been a perennial issue, these being denied time and again by inequitable social conditions, as well as government inhibition or neglect.

Of higher urgency today to the working and precariously situated peoples of the world, in fact, would be “second-generation” (social and economic) as well as “third-generation” (collective-developmental) rights. We have greater need now of institutional guarantees of access to basic standards and services for living, as well as the protection and support of the international order, should we be denied such by our home governments. It is only through the guarantee of social and collective rights that we can develop an educated and brave citizenry, willing to demand and protect their civil rights against their government.

The constitutional mandate of the Commission on Human Rights (as per Sec. 17-19, Art. XII of the 1987 Philippine Constitution) limits them to overseeing and protecting civil rights, hampering their institutional effectiveness in responding to violations of basic social and economic rights. Previous attempts at expanding this mandate to address social and economic oppression have been prevented by jurisprudence. This was demonstrated in the case of Fermo, et al. vs. Quimpo, et al. (G.R. No. 100150) in 1994. This case involved the human rights commission’s attempt at taking the Quezon City government to task against its demolition of street vendors’ stalls within North EDSA — which was halted by our own Supreme Court.

Then as now, the economic underclasses of the Philippines have been subjected to systemic discrimination — sometimes subtle, frequently violent, and ultimately denying them basic livelihood opportunities in the name of “beautification” and “discipline.” Such exclusion continues to be sanctioned and socially tolerated: be it under Bayani Fernando’s Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) in 2007, or Manila Mayor Isko Moreno’s demolition drives last June.

With patterns of urbanization and development consistently favoring the expansion of conglomerates and big brands, the economy and social life of our cities has become the plaything of big businesses — at the expense of living conditions (plus physical and social mobility). This has made modern living not only expensive, but suffocatingly inaccessible and inequitable.

It is not a coincidence that communities and movements worldwide, since the 2000s, have married the democratization agenda to sustainable development and environmental protection policies. The “right to the city” framework — while at face-value a call for liveable, walk-able and green cities — is at its heart a demand for consultative and collectively responsible governance. The desire is not only to arrest gentrification and “business-first” development. It seeks to give communities both the right to determine how their neighborhoods will be built, as well as what economy, social priorities and values should it carry further in the 21st century. Even the United Nations has come around to this line of advocacy with the adoption of the Habitat III Conference Agenda at Quito, Ecuador in 2016.

Despite gentrification and anti-democratic social relations, people will find ways to assert their rights and combat oppressive norms. Conservative enclaves and repressive governments would rather we shut up and obey. Yet urban poor communities will continue to band and protect their neighborhoods from demolition. Labor unions will continue to strike and fight to end contractualization. Students will continue to join them at the streets — whether paranoid parents and politicians permit them or not. And people from all gender identities will assert their right to love and freedom from discrimination — even as false gospels continue to condemn them.

The genuine quality of any democratic society will be ultimately judged on how we treat the most vulnerable and exploited among us. It is this hope those future generations of Filipinos, whether their government likes it or not, will continue to hold close and be part of.


Hansley A. Juliano serves as Lecturer to the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University. He teaches and writes research on democratization, Southeast Asian politics and social movement issues. He is also engaged in research and advocacy for key sectoral issues such as labour rights and agrarian reform.

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