Strengthen Democratic Institutions

Keynote address delivered by retired Chief Justice ARTEMIO V. PANGANIBAN during the First Integrity and Human Rights Conference held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Pedro Gil Street, Ermita, Manila, on January 27 to 28, 2009. The Confab is sponsored by the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, the Business for Integrity and Stability of Our Nation (Bisyon 2020) and Transparency International in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

May I thank the Honorable Leila M. de Lima, our conference chair, Atty. Nicasio A. Conti, co-chairperson, and Judge Dolores L. Español, co-convenor of this gathering, for inviting me to be your keynote speaker during this First Integrity and Human Rights Conference.

May I also acknowledge my gratitude to Companera Loida Nicolas-Lewis, the chairperson of the Bisyon 2020 and the most prominent Filipina-American taipan in the United States. Two weeks ago, she called me up long distance from her enclave in New York to make sure that I would be present here and speak before you today.

Although Mrs. Lewis is safely ensconced in America as a successful businessperson and as a close friend of both US President Barack Obama and new US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she still comes here often to help us traverse our difficult journey to attain peace, freedom and development. She and I have been involved in nation-building since our college days as organizers and officers of the National Union of Students of the Philippines, up to now in stirring up the alumni of the NUSP and in assisting worthy projects like this conference we are now holding.

Most Corrupt Nation and President

I congratulate the convenors of this conference for having the vision and the energy to call all of us together “to advocate for more committed action and to raise public awareness towards combating corruption and promoting human rights.” The conference, I am told, “will serve as a jump-off point for informing the public about their rights and the actions they can take to demand integrity from the public and private sectors and to protect their own rights.”

Indeed, the conference is crucial and relevant at this time when our country and our people are suffering from unprecedented corruption and alarming violations of human rights. A 2008 World Bank Study shows that our country’s effort to control corruption worsened from 45 percent in 1996 during the term of President Fidel V. Ramos to only 22 percent in 2007 during the incumbency of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. We edged out Indonesia for the dubious title of being the most corrupt nation in East Asia.

For many years, the World Bank treated Indonesia as the corruption basket case in our region. Three and half years ago, on August 25, 2005, Anthony Gerald Toft, the World Bank’s then chief counsel for East Asia and the Pacific grieved – during a special lecture sponsored by our Supreme Court – that corruption had mutated the Indonesian judiciary from being an agency that held political authorities accountable for their excesses to an “instrument for the pro-forma validation of (their) actions.” I wonder what the World Bank says of us now that the Philippines had replaced Indonesia as the most corrupt country is East Asia.

That World Bank report validates earlier studies showing that corruption in our country has worsened. The German-based, global corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) – represented here by our co-convenor, Judge Dolores L. Español – downgraded the Philippines from its ranking as the 121st most corrupt country in 2006 to 131st in 2007 to 141st in 2008, well below that of Mongolia (102), Nigeria (115) Ethiopia and Indonesia (both tied at 126). Somalia, the notorious home of pirates in Africa, was rated the most corrupt at the 180th place.

Most Corrupt In History

The World Bank and TI perceive the Philippines as the most graft ridden in East Asia and among the worst in the world. More tellingly, our own people regard the Arroyo administration as the most corrupt in our history. To the question: “In your opinion, under which administration has there been the most intense allegation of corruption?” a Pulse Asia face-to-face survey conducted on October 30-31, 2007 revealed the following replies in percentages: Arroyo administration, 45 percent; Marcos, 31 percent; Estrada, 14 percent; Ramos, 7 percent; Aquino, 1 percent; and none, refused to answer/can’t say, 1 percent.

To the more specific question “In your opinion, which president is the most corrupt in the history of the Philippines?” the answers were: Gloria Arroyo, 42 percent; Ferdinand Marcos, 35 percent; Joseph Estrada, 16 percent; Fidel Ramos, 5 percent; Corazon Aquino, 1 percent; and none/refused to answer/can’t say, 1 percent.

This pitiful corruption perception survey of Pulse Asia must have been triggered by many scandals like the allegedly overpriced P1.2 billion Diosdado Macapagal Boulevard near Manila Bay, the Comelec’s P3 billion three-phased modernization program, the P728 million fertilizer scam, the $503 million North Rail project and the stinking $329 million National Broadband ZTE deal.
The Social Weather Stations Survey of Enterprises on Corruption made a more recent study on graft. On September 9 to October 10, 2008, SWS interviewed managers from 402 different companies in Metro Manila, Cebu City and Davao City. A staggering 71 percent said they were blatantly asked for bribes in connection with their dealings with government, like when they secure business permits, comply with import regulations, pay customs duties and income taxes, supply the government with goods and services, collect government receivables and avail of government incentives.

Significantly, unlike the Pulse Asia report, the SWS study was not concerned with mere opinion or public perception. It dealt with facts: the respondents’ actual experience in their dealings with government.

During the last few weeks, we witnessed the startling live TV coverage of the bribery of some prosecutors of the Department of Justice alleged by operatives of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. The appalling record of the government in prosecuting drug-related offenders aggravates this expose.

In his inspiring and sparkling inaugural address, President Obama warned corrupt regimes, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit, know that you are on the wrong side of history but we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclenched your fists.” Will our leaders – both in government and in the private sector – unclench their fists? I will leave that question for your conference to answer.

Dismal Human Rights Record

How about in protecting and promoting human rights, what is our government’s track record?
According to Commission on Human Rights Chairperson Leila M. de Lima during her speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights last December, our country’s overall record is “dismal.” She deplored the recent resurgence of extra judicial killings and enforced disappearances “with the Armed Forces as the primary suspect.”

She eloquently declared, “We have not seen a single conviction in the cases of extralegal killings, enforced disappearances and torture. We have not seen a sufficient supply of adequate housing for all Filipinos, (or) an equitable distribution of wealth and land, (or) compensation for the injured during operations of State security forces, (or) a lasting peace agreement between the government and the insurgent communities in the South, (or) enough prosecutions by the Ombudsman, (or) the light at the tunnel’s end in our fight against corruption, (or) decent education available to every single Filipino child, (or) speedy justice for the thousands who languish in jails without finality of their court cases, (or) true and equal accessibility to employment for the disabled, (or) the right of suffrage available to all, (or) the full protection of the vote of those who exercise their right to suffrage, (or) the end of the suppression of the freedom of speech, of expression and assembly.”

During the same occasion, Archbishop Angel Lagdameo, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, lamented that the observance of Human Rights Day “gives us a feeling of shame and embarrassment because of the innumerable human rights violations that have remained unexamined, unexplained and unsolved or covered up by events.”

The human rights group Karapatan was more specific. According to a news reports printed on December 10, 2008, Karapatan documented 977 victims of extra judicial killings, 1,010 victims of torture and 1,464 victims of illegal arrest during the eight years of the Arroyo administration. During the 10-month period from January to October 2008 alone, there were at least four cases of forced disappearances and 50 victims of extra judicial killings.

The harrowing tale narrated by Raymond Manalo of his, and his brother Reynaldo’s torture (as well as that of missing UP students Karen Empeno and Sherlyn Cadapan) at the hands of the Armed Forces of the Philippines aired in ANC’s “Storyline” two weeks ago should convinced even the most jaded among us of the urgent need to vindicate violations of human rights in our country.

Need I say more? No, but I will leave these observations of our courageous CHR chairperson and eminent CBCPpresident as well as the statistics of hardworking Karapatan and the heart-wrenching story of Raymond Manalo for your conference to examine, reflect and act on.

Rhetoric, Evasiveness and Finger-pointing

In the swirl of this dismal and worsening track record of corruption and human rights violations in our country, what has been the response of our leaders and policy makers?

I am afraid mostly rhetoric, evasiveness and finger-pointing, like calling TI biased and suggesting it had been bought by the opposition, or ignoring the World Bank reports and hoping its jarring findings would slip into oblivion, or proposing some kind of authoritarian rule and shooting drug suspects like Ferdinand Marcos did, or condemning our presidential form of government and instituting the parliamentary system as the end-all remedy to the ills of governance, or dismissing President Obama’s warning and saying that all governments in the world are corrupt anyway (Susmariosep!).

Let me be a little more specific to demonstrate my point. After the drug enforcement officers hurled the current bribery allegations against the prosecutors of the Department of Justice, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo immediately called for the creation of an independent citizens’ committee to investigate the brouhaha and to recommend punitive actions against the erring officials.

Civil Society Should Not Take the Place of Government

On the surface, this proposal may serve to quiet down public indignation on this issue by shifting attention to the work of the citizens’ committee. But on deeper reflection, I believe that this is not the proper solution. Why should private citizens be given the burden of discharging the responsibility of public officers when there are enough public offices created by the Constitution and given ample powers and prerogatives by law to deal precisely with these shenanigans?

The Office of the Ombudsman was conceived by the Constitution precisely to meet this kind of contingency. This office is mandated to “investigate on its own, or on complaint by any person, any act or omission of any public official, employee, office or agency, when such act or omission appears to be illegal, unjust, improper or inefficient.”

Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez is given not only the responsibility of curbing corruption and violations of human rights but is also granted plenary power “to stop, prevent and correct any abuse or impropriety in the performance of duties.” She could prosecute, suspend, dismiss or otherwise penalize erring officials. Like the judiciary, the Ombudsman enjoys fiscal autonomy and independence. Let the Ombudsman perform her constitutional duty. If she refuses or cannot do so, let her resign or be replaced. But let not civilians, never mind how well intentioned, perform her duties for her.

In comparison to the Ombudsman, a citizens’ committee does not enjoy fiscal autonomy but must depend on the generosity of the political branches of government for its personnel and funding. It does not have coercive powers to compel the attendance of witnesses or to hold them in contempt for ignoring or violating its orders. Its actions and orders may be challenged in court, resulting in unnecessary complications and delays.

Moreover, a citizens’ committee merely duplicates unnecessarily the work of another government agency that is well funded and well empowered to deal with the problem more efficiently and speedily. I even think that the creation of such citizens’ committee is an insult to the Ombudsman. It shows utter lack of confidence on her competence and independence to perform her constitutional duties and powers.

Enough Laws and Enough Democratic Institutions

My point is that we have enough laws and enough democratic institutions to fight graft and to uphold human rights, like the Ombudsman and the Commission on Audit (COA), not to mention the largely cosmetic Presidential Anti-Graft Commission. What is needed is leadership by example by President Arroyo to stamp out graft, the Office of the Ombudsman’s exercise of its independence and diligence to prosecute monster scalawags and the COA’s dogged insistence on accountability. Parenthetically, the same insistence should be made on other institutions, like the Supreme Court, the Commission on Elections and the Civil Service Commission to perform their duties without fear or favor and with integrity and devotion.

The problem is that many of our institutions have been metastasized by incompetence, shoddiness, deference to the appointing authority, more than to the Constitution and to the people. Unfortunately, while our Constitution and laws have created laudable democratic institutions and given them sufficient powers to solve the demons of corruption and human rights violations, far too many of the incumbents do not have the moral courage and the competence to perform their mandates. What we need therefore is not a change of Constitutions or laws, but a change of our officials; in fact, not just a change of officials, but a change in our officials from the inside out.

A Call to Ethics

How can our officials have a change of heart from the inside out? I say let them return to ethics, to “old fashioned” principles like integrity, humility, fidelity, patriotism and prudence – basic norms that must be internalized as the primary source of personal success and enduring happiness, wherever one is whether in the government, in the convent or in simple private life.

For government officials, the ethical standard is contained in Republic Act No. 6713 entitled “An Act Establishing a Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees x x x.” This law begins with a declaration of policy that “(p)ublic officials and employees shall at all times be accountable to the people and shall discharge their duties with utmost responsibility, integrity, competence and loyalty, act with patriotism and justice, lead modest lives and uphold public interest over private interest.”

Ethics, Not Public Relations Spins

In our world of short cuts and make believe, society has bastardized ethics into public relations techniques. Instead of emphasizing the Ethical Standards Law, our so-called leaders display double standards – one for kin and friends, another for the rest of mankind; engage in double speak or talk of one thing and do quite another; employ so called “spin doctors” who try to create an image of public acceptability for their clients without changing old habits and ways.

Such duplicity is fundamentally flawed. Instead of being a beacon of success and happiness, pretension is really a source of anxiety and frustration, because the subject knows that the public image is false and dishonest. It does not represent reality. Yes, duplicity is the opposite of integrity. It is a malaise that befuddles the inner fabric of society and is the cause of many national ills. The game of pretend has been used as a substitute for integrity. As a result, our character as a people has been subverted.

It is interesting to note that more than 90 percent of our people are Christians who profess to know, to follow and to serve Jesus Christ, the God who preached that the truth shall set us free; the God who condemned violence, selfishness and corruption. Why, then, is our country one of the poorest, most graft-ridden and most violent in this part of the world? The answer is that Christians live dichotomized lives; they are Christians only in their thoughts, not in their actions; Christians only in their faith, not in their deeds; Christians only while worshipping inside the churches, not while working in their offices.

In secular language, our leaders live duplicitous lives – lives engendered by public relations techniques, not be ethics; by pretension, not be truth; by deceit, not be integrity. The result is not only personal disillusionment of the individual, but degradation of society as well.

The solution? A return to ethics – to the “old-fashioned” ethical values of integrity, fidelity, hard work, humility, patriotism, honor and rectitude. To change society, to change our government, we need not just a change of leaders, but a change in leaders from the inside out. The change we are looking for embraces the whole person – head, heart, hands and feet; head so as to know what traits and habits are to be reformed; heart so as to have the will and the courage to change; hands and feet, so as to carry out the reforms willed.

Two Main Solutions to Corruption and Human Rights Violations

In simple language, what is my message to you today? Well, my message can be encapsulated in two parts; first, I urge you to insist on the strict enforcement of the Ethical Standards Law; and second, I bid you to strengthen our democratic institutions by demanding from our officials the faithful performance of their constitutional and legal duties.

In making the second recommendation to strengthen our democratic institutions, I make two caveats. One, the Commission on Human Rights can rightfully claim exemption from the sweeping condemnation of ineffective public offices because its powers are mostly recommendatory. On its own, it unfortunately cannot even prosecute violations of human rights. As aptly voiced by Chairperson de Lima, the CHR “cannot show its teeth.”

Two, I do not denigrate the effort of civil society in the denouncing corruption and violations of human rights. In fact, I praise our sponsors, especially Bisyon 2020 and Transparency International, for spearheading this commendable conference. I merely want to point out that civilians, however well meaning, should not relieve public officials from performing their duty to serve our people ethically and courageously. After all, our Constitution and laws have vested these officials with sufficient authority, powers and prerogatives to do their jobs and our people are paying taxes to support their work and compensate them for their services.

Indeed, I agree with and praise civil society, especially the sponsors of our conference and their supporter, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), for their grit and civic consciousness in advising our people about their rights and in demanding integrity, fidelity and accountability from our highest official, the President, down to the lowest clerk. Indeed, the citizenry should insist on accountability, transparency, ethics and integrity from our officials in solving our maladies before human rights are totally trampled upon and before our country is rated the most corrupt in the world, overtaken not only by Indonesia but even by Somalia, the present cellar dweller.


To close, may I now sum up this keynote in three sentences. I believe that the citizens’ role is not to substitute for and do what our officials should be doing. The citizens’ job is to perform oversight functions, that is, to demand that only the most qualified are elected or appointed, and then to insist that these public officials perform their duties ethically, courageously and competently. Otherwise, if these officials cannot or would not do their jobs properly, the citizens should ask for their resignation, impeachment or dismissal and their replacement by the ethical, the courageous and the competent.

Maraming salamat po.


Comments Off on Strengthen Democratic Institutions

Filed under Speeches

Comments are closed.