In her 2-part interview with Pressenza journalist Perfecto Caparas, former commissioner of the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHRP) Karen S. Gomez Dumpit narrates how former president Rodrigo Duterte’s government stymied CHR, an independent constitutional commission. This, amid the slaughter of an estimated 12,000-30,000 civilians by suspected security forces in the name of Duterte’s so-called“drug war”.
Former commissioner Gomez Dumpit has served the Philippine Government for 32 years with 28 years in various positions, including 9 years as the first Director of the CHR’s Child Rights Center, and as CHR commissioner from June 2015- May 2022. She handled, as commissioner, the following focal areas: Women’s Rights, Gender Equality, Older Person’s Rights, the CHR’s Campaign against the Death Penalty, and Human Rights Promotion. Her programmatic innovations in human rights advocacy include the Human Rights-Based Approach to Legislation and groundbreaking engagements of the CHR in the Human Rights Promotion and Protection Mechanisms of the United Nations (Universal Periodic Review, Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families, Convention against Torture, Cruel and other Inhuman, Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).
Perfecto Caparas: You have been in the Commission on Human Rights for almost 29 years, including almost 7 years as a commissioner. What would you consider the most challenging human rights issues that you dealt with?
Karen Gomez Dumpit: The last 6 years were the most challenging really. The distortion of the concept of human rights, the demonization of human rights defenders and the apparent public support for an administration that normalized a killing culture in the country. The first 6 months into the Duterte Administration, we were floored. Not only at the populism and incitement to hatred for human rights and human rights defenders but of the seeming acceptance of the scale and pace of the killings which surpassed the atrocities under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos’ martial rule. We grappled with questions like, where did we go wrong? How have we come to this? How do we push back?
PC: The CHR has strong partnerships with various government organizations. For decades, CHR has pursued human rights programs among the officers and personnel of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police. What successes have these programs yielded?
For the first time in over 2 decades of human rights work, we were disrespected by fellow government counterparts. (I should qualify that the disrespect did not come from all of them. Most were silent about it but those who were disrespectful were certainly the ‘loudest persons in the room’ so to speak — led by no less than the [former] President [Rodrigo Duterte]).
Past administrations may have disagreed with what we were doing because we always called out government. They would argue with us but would never be disrespectful and were always professional.
I recall about 10 years into my human rights career, I was in a closed small meeting with government agencies with overly delayed treaty reports on the agenda. A high-ranking military officer burst in frustration and said “mahalin naman ninyo kami!” (“Love us!”) — I remember sensing his pain. I vaguely recall what made him say that but probably I was pointing out certain practices that were not in compliance with established human rights standards. I honestly felt his sincerity and he was probably a very upright officer and a gentleman. He did not curse and I did not feel disrespected when he said that. I was then a middle manager in the Commission, I realized that some government officers did not appreciate the role of national human rights institutions.
Looking back, what would I have told my thirty-something self on how to react? More empathy? Maybe so. Because, fast forward to the recent past with the hailstorm against CHR (I recall hashtags like #CHRiminals and #AbolishCHR), if the institution had more empathy towards government actors (without losing our focus as monitors) — it would not have ballooned into a hate mob against the human rights community as a whole. Messaging would have been more nuanced for a deeper understanding of human rights and the work of the CHR and human rights defenders. Instead, distortion of human rights concepts and the demonization of human rights defenders became the “in” thing. We even earned the badge of the most bashed agency of government then.
They thought that because we were part of the bureaucracy, we should always toe the line of government. And of course, this view is simply erroneous. CHR is an independent monitor of government. But then with the highest office stoking hate against human rights, it was a perfect storm that we had to contend with. Rug pulled from under, we were cast as a pariah — government officials avoided meetings in the office, especially at the beginning because they did not want to displease the [then] President [Duterte] who openly insulted CHR and our Chairperson, Chito Gascon. We were even disinvited from a human rights event celebrated by Congress during the first year of the Duterte Administration and were not invited to the State of the Nation Address (SONA) for the first time since our establishment in 1987. We were never invited to succeeding human rights celebrations and SONAs. Exclusion of perceived enemies was the modality of the past administration.
But thankfully, we have invested in programs and partnerships at technical levels of government that left a window open for conversations. That window was open but exchanges were often out of sight and truncated because officers were being careful about being seen with the CHR.
A formal mechanism of exchange is the “Community-based Dialogue Sessions on Human Rights Promotion and Protection between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, and Civil Society Organizations and Local Communities”. Since 2008, this is a cooperation among the Armed Forces of the Philippines Human Rights Office (AFP HRO), the Philippine National Police Human Rights Affairs Office (PNP HRAO), the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA), the Alternative Law Groups (ALG) and the Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSF) of Germany. As the title suggests, it is a venue for hard conversations about human rights situations. The cooperation included local situationers, creation of human rights modules on complaints mechanisms within the military and police organizations ranging from topics that spanned not only civil and political rights but also economic, social and cultural rights. The project also developed the “Top Level Policy Dialogues” which sparked discussions on government policies that enhance compliance with human rights standards at the community level. There have been ups and downs in this project, especially in the last 6 years. There were sessions that ended with agreeing to disagree but what is important is that there is a line of communication and that the Commission on Human Rights has been able to build bridges between the security sector and civil society.
Information on this program can be found in this link:
PC: Given the magnitude of the targeted killings of an estimated 12,000 to 30,000 civilians in the course of President Duterte’s so-called “war on drugs,” according to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s estimates, how do you view the efficacy of human rights education as an approach to promoting the role of the police and the military in human rights promotion and protection? Is human rights education enough?
KGD: Human Rights education alone cannot eliminate human rights violations. But perhaps we can qualify this because human rights education comes in many forms. It can be formal and informal with various methodologies for ladderized, field-focused, age-appropriate knowledge sharing. Even platforms used for teaching human rights have been broadened — we have utilized social media and have invested in strategic communications to ensure that we are sending the correct message about human rights and responding to fake news with facts.
The reason why these deaths have followed the past government’s war on drugs and other human rights violations during the Duterte Administration is because of the maleducation and maledictions by the highest authorities that permeated to the ground.
Leadership and language matter. We missed many teachable moments in uninvestigated operations that could have corrected the actions of police officers and those involved at the local government level. The petitions on the constitutionality of “Tokhang” (the slang for the “war on drugs”) submitted before the Supreme Court—for every single day that the highest court does not act on pending motions for government to provide information in the proper format to petitioners, is a lost opportunity to teach about the primacy of the right to life and the obligations of state authorities to respect, promote and fulfill them. Cases have not been forthcoming.
To my recollection, the government cannot even cite a single case of successful prosecution — not even the case of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos because it is still pending appeal and despite the family accepting the government’s assistance and witness protection days after their kin’s extra-judicial killing, we see that justice has not been served. Kian’s remains were just exhumed the other day from the public cemetery because the lease on the grave already expired after 5 years. Even the dead cannot rest. His death and others who were killed in the unwinnable drug war are like open bleeding wounds in the hearts of family members orphaned as a result of this brutal campaign which largely victimized the poor.
PC: Are there other institutional mechanisms that need to be put in place to ensure that the state fulfills its obligation to respect, protect, and promote human rights?
KGD: Simply put, impunity enables the occurrence of human rights violations. The best mechanism for the state to fulfill its obligations to human rights is to enable access to justice for the victims and their families. Check and balance in government must be restored.
We look to the last bastion of democracy — the judiciary for check and balance. For this to take place, we need judicial activism. It would be good to emulate what took place under the leadership of Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno when EJKs were on the rise during the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The Supreme Court responded with the conduct of the 1st Summit on Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances which was held in July 2007. This conference brought together all branches of government including oversight constitutional bodies and discussed ways to address the human rights situation in the country. Soon after, the groundbreaking rules on the Writs of Amparo and Habeas Data were promulgated with the leadership of Chief Justice Puno and Associate Justice Adolf Azcuna.
Human Rights Institute
Before we ended our term of office last May, we launched the Human Rights Institute (HRI) to shore up our education, training, and learning programs. The Human Rights Institute is a longtime vision of previous commission members in ensuring that education is made accessible to the people and for government personnel to better understand their role as primary duty-bearers in fulfilling human rights obligations. The HRI is also envisioned to fight against historical revisionism and provide a gateway for robust human rights education programs with other human rights institutions.
Unfortunately, the special provision in the General Appropriations was vetoed by President Duterte citing technicalities in the budgeting process. However, while vetoing this provision, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF ELCAC) has been allocated a whopping 17 billion pesos in the General Appropriations Act of 2022. NTF- ELCAC is not even a national agency but an inter-agency committee widely known to be responsible for the massive red-tagging of human rights defenders, personalities, and private individuals who have criticized the government. On the other hand, the budget of the Commission on Human Rights is not even 1/17th of the NTF ELCAC’s budget.
A useful links for more context on the EJKs and the “war on drugs”:
and on the CHR’s Human Rights Institute: