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A Pastoral Letter on Human Rights

To all our Catholic Faithful and all People of Good Will:

One hundred years ago, on June 12, 1898, we as a people declared our independence from three hundred years of colonial rule.  Fifty years later, on December 10, 1948, the United Nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time" (John Paul II, Address to the United Nations, no. 2, New York, 5 October 1995).  These two historic and momentous events most certainly have far-reaching significance to our life as a nation, contemporary and future.

How have we behaved as a nation in quest of genuine freedom, social justice and development—the basic human yearnings for which our gallant forebears fought and gave up their lives?  How have we promoted the human dignity and fundamental rights of each and every Filipino?

Since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights we have gone through successive political regimes, each one promising the realization of Filipino aspirations.  Yet each regime could not adequately deliver.  We even agonized through the darkest political period of our history as a free people.  The bitter regime of Martial Law forcibly denied us our basic human rights and freedoms and violently suppressed every significant dissenting voice with arrest without warrant, arbitrary detention, torture, and extra-judicial killing—all in the name of national security and development.

It is now twelve years since those heroic days when the non-violent force of People Power, mobilized by the prophetic calls of Church leaders, liberated us from abject inhumanity.  It was a brief flash of collective brilliance by a tiny nation but it astounded a whole world and became a lesson that would be repeated in other places.

But today we ask ourselves, what have we to show to God and to the world?

The Human Person, the Image of God:  the Basis of Human Rights

"So God created man in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27).

In Christian reflection, the truth of the human person created in the image of God is at the basis of human dignity and of all human rights.  Undeniably, "…there are indeed universal human rights, rooted in the nature of the person, rights which reflect the objective and inviolable demands of a universal moral law" (John Paul II, ibid., no. 3).

This moral principle of human dignity finds ultimate confirmation in the biblical revelation of Jesus who commanded what is seemingly a human contradiction:  "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Lk. 6:27).  The simple logic of such a startling statement rests in his words:  "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Lk. 6:31).  But beyond the practical motive of being treated well by others is the fact that every human person is truly ennobled and loved by God:  "Consider the ravens, they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!" (Lk. 12:24).

In a less faith-oriented statement, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights echoes this truth.  It affirms "the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family."  It declares that the recognition of this truth "is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world" (Preamble).  Thus the very first of the 30 Articles of the Declaration states:  "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.  They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood".

The truth of human dignity and freedom is an ethical teaching common to all the great ancient religions of the world.  From this common ethical basis, the Declaration presents two broad sets of human rights:  (1) civil and political rights; and (2) economic, social and cultural rights.  Two separate documents in 1976 would later address these rights:  the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Both sets of rights aim to extend to all peoples "freedom from fear and want".  Further, in 1986 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Right to Development which unequivocally declares:  "The human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development" (Art. 2, no. 1).

The 1948 Universal Declaration ends with the warning:  "Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act at the destruction of any of the rights and freedom set forth herein" (Article 30).  It is clear that in a holistic understanding of human rights, the responsibility of protecting human rights belongs not only to the State but also to every person or group.  In the recent past, some Philippine human rights groups maintained that only the State can violate human rights.  This is not correct and has since been discredited.  It is clear that individuals and groups other than the State, such as rebel groups, do violate human rights and have to be accountable.

The Philippine Bishops on Human Rights

In the movement of Filipinos to promote human rights in the past 30 years, we are particularly proud of and thankful for the outstanding deeds of thousands of lay people, clergy and religious.  Many of them were victims of human rights abuses.  To this cause of justice the Catholic bishops have made a modest contribution as Pastors of the Catholic faithful.  We wrote many pastoral statements on human rights, especially during the harshest times of Martial Law.  We issued statements on such issues as arbitrary arrests and detention, "liquidation and salvaging," secret marshals, para-military forces, writ of habeas corpus , persecution of lay leaders, killings of church personnel, ministers, and journalists, the national security state ideology as well as the ideology of violence.

We presented concrete cases.  We dialogued with government officials locally and nationally.  Our prophetic role as pastors culminated in our 1986 pre-EDSA statement on the immorality of a government that gains power by fraudulent means.  We are thankful to the loving God that this most significant statement helped mobilize many of our people to support justice and truth in the succeeding days.  Many others all over the world considered the statement courageous and historic.

But we were also aware that the issue of human rights was being used to advance political and even ideological interests.  We, therefore, issued a pastoral statement in 1987 denouncing the manipulative use of human rights.  Today this 1987 statement continues to have value.  Many governments and lobby groups use the issue of human rights as a political and ideological tool.  They apply it with a double standard, making it a "conditionality" for some countries that need aid while conveniently ignoring the issue for other countries for the sake of their own national or political interests.  Others inveigh against the human rights abuses of their ideological enemies, while conveniently ignoring the abuses of their own groups.  But to us, truth and justice and not political or ideological interests must always be at the basis of human rights.

The Situation of Human Rights Today

We appear to have progressed significantly regarding civil and political rights since the days of Martial Law.  Yet when we survey our country today we are gravely disturbed and dismayed by seemingly unending violations of human rights.  It is a long litany of injustice against civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, including the right to development.

We name some major violations:  kidnappings, disappearances, deep-seated and rampant corruption, electoral frauds, de facto disenfranchisement of voters, arbitrary arrests, detention in secret places, torture and other inhuman treatment, extra-judicial killings by both government and rebel forces, abuses of CAFGU (Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units) and other armed groups.  In the judicial sphere, there are demoralizing judicial inaction and delays, denial of fair public trial due to personal and professional relationships between judges, individuals and corporations, withdrawal of key witnesses because of threats, resort to "amicable settlements" when justice could have been vigorously pursued.

Despite a negotiated cease-fire, government and MILF forces trade accusations of human rights violations.  On the other hand, civilians, politicians, policemen, former members and leaders of the NPA are condemned without due process by insurgents before so-called "people's courts" and executed.  And today more than 10,000 victims of human rights abuses during the Marcos regime continue to wait for long-delayed indemnification.

Hundreds of families see their homes demolished because of economic projects and are not provided with substitute housing.  Sexual harassment, rape of women and domestic violence are very serious recurring problems, aggravated by a "macho culture" and by a sense of shame to report incidents.  When perpetrators are powerful, justice for the victims is dim.  We also consider government policies regarding population control and their manner of implementation as highly objectionable in light of religious freedom and freedom of conscience.  Family rights are violated as well as the rights of unborn children.

Many Overseas Filipino Workers are exploited and abused.  In some countries, Filipino Christian risk severe punishment, including death, when they practice their faith in accordance with the freedom of religion.  In such cases, our government is rendered helpless, and its appeal is based on humanitarian reasons rather than on the issue of justice and religious freedom, assured by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Ironically, a country such as ours that has restored the death penalty has to beg for mercy before the courts of other countries when our citizens are imposed a similar penalty.  Those same countries serenely enjoy freedom of religion in other countries while denying it to others.  It is the task of the international community to correct this egregious violation of fundamental human rights.

Poverty hinders thousands of children from going to school and forces many of them to work, thus inhibiting their proper development.  Indigenous peoples face the loss of their ancestral lands and the destruction of their cultures, as projects of development aggressively attack their traditional environment.  Their rights to meaningful participation and development are often ignored.  They suffer greatly from lack of basic services, health, and education.

As the economic situation worsens, the rights of workers to association, to strike, to security or to bargain collectively are increasingly being restricted, legally and illegally.  "Labor only" subcontracting is sometimes used by employers to evade their obligations to workers and to break unions.  On the other hand it is popularly believed that many union leaders, for their own self-interests, have enriched themselves and have exploited their own members.  Further, the right of farmers and other agricultural workers to development is neglected or, at best, has been subordinated to the drive toward industrialization and global economic competitiveness.  Many tenants suffer, as in the case of the MAPALAD Bukidnon farmers, because of contrary claims to land by powerful people and because of massive land conversions in the name of development.  In such cases, true agrarian reform is deliberately ignored.  Large scale fishing, often by foreign companies, considerably deprives small fisherfolk of their only means of livelihood.  Irresponsible media reporting is known to have destroyed the fundamental right of persons to their good name.

The above situation of human rights today calls for our strong moral denunciation.  We call upon our government to do everything that it can legally do to bring to justice those who violate human rights, to correct the social structures that allow human rights violations to be perpetrated especially against the poor, the indigenous peoples, women and children, and to make sure that violations are not committed by our own security forces.

Meeting the Challenge of Human Rights: Convictions, Social Solidarity

Indeed, the injustices committed against human dignity and human rights today make our celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights almost farcical.

Yet the situation is truly a challenge to all of us.  We need to pursue the task of defending and promoting human rights with the following convictions:

  1. Human rights are, indeed, universal and indivisible.  They are based on the inviolable transcendental dignity of the human being and do not arise from democratic opinion surveys or from "politically or ideologically correct" beliefs, which change from time to time.  Neither can one set of rights be put aside and ignored while priority is given to another.  Unfortunately some developed countries, attempting to preserve their position of power, urge civil and political rights on peoples and governments of developing countries while ignoring the latter's economic, social, and cultural rights.  On the other hand, some leaders of developing countries suppress civil and political rights for the sake of promoting economic development.  They even cite cultural differences as a further reason.  It is our belief that differences in cultures and religions complement rather than reject the universality and indivisibility of human rights.
  2. Human rights are God-given and we, as members of the same human family, have to forge a strong network of "social solidarity" (John Paul II, ibid., no. 4. "A decisive factor in the success of those non-violent revolutions was the experience of social solidarity:  in the face of regimes backed by the power of propaganda and terror, that solidarity was the moral core of the power of the powerless ") with one another to protect and defend human rights, especially of the "least of our brethren," as an imperative of human growth—in community.
  3. There are human rights that need to be recognized and further promoted.  Among these are women's and children's rights together with those of the unborn, the rights of communities and indigenous peoples, the right to culture and self-identity.  The promotion of such rights is especially urgent in the Philippines when the cultures of indigenous peoples are constantly threatened by so called "development aggression."  Furthermore, there is a need to develop the rights of nations, as Pope John Paul II pointed out (Address to the United Nations, 1995, no. 6).  Finally with the rise of biotechnologies we also need to be cautious about the move to provide commercial patents or intellectual property rights for the use of indigenous knowledge and skills to provide food, such as patenting various varieties of rice, and maintain health systems.  Such a move would give control of these to corporations and limit the access of the poor to them.  The move would also allow corporations to have property rights over life forms and its parts, in effect to tamper with life through genetic engineering for the sake of profit.
  4. Violations of human rights today are not simply done by individuals or groups but are already—in the form of social sin—built into social structures, policies and laws that discriminate against other persons and other groups, especially against the lower sectors of society.  The cases of agrarian reform, the recent Mining Act, and widespread endemic corruption are illustrative examples.
  5. In the final analysis, the foundation stone on which we must build a society that is respectful of human rights is the virtue of love.  This, after all, is the traditional and treasured name of the value of human solidarity.  There is no genuinely full respect for human dignity, no respect for human rights unless all peoples, irrespective of race, religion, gender, tribe, or class, truly love one another.  In the Christian Scriptures such love is expressed as the second of the greatest commandment:  "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  And the first, on which all righteousness and justice depends, is:  "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Mt. 22:36-38).
  6. Therefore, in the struggle to defend and promote human rights there has to be a constant need to commend our efforts to the Almighty God, the Creator of human dignity and the Liberator and Redeemer of the human community from every form of sin, including social sin.  Without prayer, all effort at social transformation will come to no avail.

Conclusion:  Commitments

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we gratefully acknowledge the heroic contribution of many individuals and groups to the cause of human rights in our country.  Thousands of people, from all religious persuasions, singly or in cause-oriented organizations, church-related or otherwise, have been at the vanguard of the human rights movement in the country from the inception of Martial Law, through its dismantling, and up to the present.

Today people of good will need an even stronger solidarity with one another.  The indivisibility of human rights makes the task of defending and promoting them more complex and difficult.  The freedom to speak and the freedom to worship according to one's conscience are inextricably bound up with the right to development.  And so the interconnectedness of other human rights.

Moreover, the forces of manipulation and oppression are many, both local and global.  We need to discern their faces more clearly.  The all-pervasive process of globalization is promoting economic, political, social and cultural values that invade our consciousness subtly through mass media and other technological advances.  New forms of freedom and rights without any moral moorings are being erected.

As we face the future, we humbly offer to all peoples of good will in our country a vision of society where respect for human dignity and human rights prevails:  a social order "founded in truth, built on justice, and enlivened by love," and growing "in freedom towards a more humane equilibrium" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 26).

Toward this vision, we commit ourselves and our diocesan social action centers to link hands with one and all in morally legitimate action for human dignity and human rights.  We commit our parishes, Basic Ecclesial Communities, religious organizations, pastoral programs and educational institutions to do their share in educating the Filipino to justice, peace and human rights.

This we do, asking the intercession of Mary, the Mother of the Lord Jesus, who demonstrated his own human dignity by the unique way in which he loved and served others, especially the downtrodden.

For and in the name of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines:

Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan
President, CBCP

December 1, 1998

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