Stories of people being beaten up by policemen, of individuals committing suicide due to abject poverty and of deaths due to hunger are common in the Philippines. Although the media often report these cases, the victims never have their cases documented for the purpose of remedial action. After the media exposure and short-lived condemnation, this violence and these tragedies are forgotten.
There has not been a concerted effort to help the needy even though their problems are widespread and systematic. A hit-and-run approach to human tragedies leads to moral decay and is an abrogation of the obligations of the state. It also infers prejudice and discrimination based on who the victims are and who deserves assistance.
On several occasions, suspects, or even non-suspects of a crime, have been brutally beaten by security forces, not for their involvement in a rebel group, but as de facto punishment for supposedly committing an offense. Though these cases are often reported, human rights groups and people advocating the protection of human rights have paid little attention to this scenario.
What the victims need is to have their cases documented and help offered in obtaining remedies. This could mean judicial remedies and/or rehabilitation, in the same manner that torture victims whose cases are political in nature have been served.
In the Philippines, assistance for torture victims outside the context of the country’s insurgency, or cases that are not political in nature, is rare. The understanding that the victims of non-political human rights violations deserve protection too has apparently not developed thus far. While most organizations are aware of this oversight, no actions have presently been taken to correct this deficiency.
While human rights protection is for everyone, in reality the psyche and social structure does not support this view. Instead, there is an indirect and subconscious understanding that effectively labels some Filipinos as subhuman. The suffering of victims of police torture is not understood as an assault on their fundamental rights. Such torture is not seen as a serious human rights violation. The perception is that the protection of human rights is only for certain sectors of Philippine society — political activists and dissenters, for example.
This perhaps explains why any attempt or proposal to lobby for the enactment of a law against torture has so far failed to gain strong public support or generate clear public opinion. The discussion and lobbying thus far have been so dogmatic that it appears that the enactment of a law against torture is primarily for the protection of political activists and dissenters. It is not understood that, apart from this set of victims, a vast number of others are ordinary citizens who have long suffered because of a lack of redress.
The same conclusion applies to people committing suicide or dying of hunger and starvation. As noted previously, media reports of these cases fail to adequately document or bring aid to these victims and their families. Tabloid newspapers and radio news bulletins often report on individuals, and even couples, who take their lives to escape abject poverty, but their stories rarely occupy even half a page of a newspaper, giving the impression that their tragedies are unimportant or have little news value. Their deaths are not portrayed as an assault on their right to life. Rather, they are usually seen as the result of misfortune.
When my cousin died last October due to a hunger-related disease, not a single news organization took an interest in her story. Not even journalists who are known to me or human rights activists took an interest in her story. This confirmed my belief that no institutions actually exist to help people and their families suffering from hunger or those facing the threat of death due to starvation. The deaths of my cousin and her son have not been understood as a failure of the state’s obligation to uphold their right to life.
My cousin died two years after her son died from severe malnutrition. Her story was among the many untold or undocumented tragedies in the Philippines. For example, last November, just days after she died, a schoolgirl in the neighboring city of Davao committed suicide. A couple had committed suicide in Sangay, Camarines Sur, five months earlier. These stories were reported, but very few people took any interest in them.
A lack of resources to help victims is one explanation often offered in these situations, but people’s lack of understanding of what constitutes torture and the right to life is also a factor. It could be a failure to deeply understand human rights or fear or frustration at trying to uphold them. Many people think their actions would make no difference anyway, because of the country’s poor legal and political systems.
Philippine society does not have a caste system, like South Asia. However, the social psyche and manner effectively discriminate against a certain sector of society and unconsciously render them subhuman. The mentality and social understanding that has developed over time implies that the suffering of these victims is less important than that of a more politically active group. This psyche, prejudice and twisted understanding of human rights, and of human beings, creates discrimination and completely subverts the notion of people’s equality.