On the Occasion of the Community of Sant'Egidio's International Meeting of
Ministers of Justice, entitled "No Justice Without Life" An Asia Pacific Dialogue on
Human Rights and Respectfor Human Dignity
27 October 2014
Isla Ballroom, EDSA Shangri- La
A Culture for Life in the
Leila M. De Lima
First of all, may I extend to you the warm greetings of His Excellency, President Benigno S. Aquino III, and, on his behalf, 1 welcome you all to this gathering.
Allow me to thank everyone here today. We commend the Community of Sant'Egidio for raising the awareness of all peoples and
governments about the irreplaceable value of human life.
The issue of the death penalty affects us all. It sheds light on the kind of society that we wish to build, the kind of justice that we choose to
uphold, and the kind of people that we aspire to be.
If there was one word that defines the Filipino collective spirit, it would undoubtedly be "resilience": resilience in the face of problems,
challenges and catastrophes, both natural and man-made. Beneath that resilience is one underlying premise: Hope. Hence, our metaphorical
battle cry as a nation - whether in the face of the prospect of loss in a basketball game or boxing match, or in the aftermath of volcanic
eruptions, earthquakes, or typhoons - has always been "Never Say Die, Philippines", or as it is often said in the local parlance, "Habang may
buhay, mag pag-asa." There is no question, therefore, that Life and Hope are the two things that make us, the Filipino people, who we are.
In our culture, they are not only intrinsically intertwined; they have, in fact, become sYmbolically sYnonYmous. Even our government has
always been well aware and respectful of that part of our cultural DNA. Thus, even as it fought for the legality of the Reproductive Health Law,
no one even ventured to suggest that abortion be legalized - which, in fact, remains an unlawful act punishable under our laws - because, while
we recognized the right to health of women, we never once wavered in our conviction about the sanctity of human life. Much less has our own
Almost four (4) decades ago, when our president, President NoYnoy Aquino, was a child of 17 years, his father and namesake was
sentenced to die by musketry. The military tribunal dispatched by the dictator conducted a farcical legal theater and found Ninoy Aquino guilty
of trumped up charges of murder, subversion and illegal possession of firearms, when what he was, in truth, was the leader of the opposition
party determined to stop the perpetuation of power by the authoritarian ruler.
Their story is not at all different from the tales of sorrow and anguish shared by thousands of families brutalized by despots and dictators.
I speak from the experience of the Philippines, a country whose own national hero, the great Dr. Jose Rizal whose wellspring of ideas of
nationhood and citizenship incidentally was shaped from his encounters and engagements on this very soil, was himself executed by firing squad. Ours is a story of a country who has been twice seduced in recent history by the capital punishment's promise of deterrence whose passionate proponents were seemingly impervious to the fallibility and flaws of our judicial system. Indeed, if it were not for the timely moratorium and en masse commutation of the death penalty by the former presidents and thepresidents and the law's eventual repeal, we would have rendered upon ourselves the ignominy of being the country that law's eventual repeal, we would have rendered upon ourselves thewill have what our former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, Artemio Panganiban, calls, the "bloodiest record of legal murders in the world."
Today, we cannot rest easy. At every turn, at every popular opportunity triggered by the commission of certain heinous crimes, there are those who would clamor and passionately cry out for the return or continued imposition of the death penalty. Theirs are arguments that are hard to ignore, and their following is not what we might call "negligible". And so the need to close ranks, and to insist on the primacy and supremacy of human rights, the right to life and human dignity being the most paramount.
It has helped that the Philippines is predominantly a Catholic country. But the abolition and prohibition of the death penalty is not about religion. It is rooted in the essential condition of every human being that life is inviolable and indivisible, and ending a person's life as an institutional punishment renders the punisher guiltier in a more deliberate manner. I am, in fact, paraphrasing the philosopher-novelist Albert Camus, who wrote that capital punishment is the most premeditated of all murders.
Let me be very clear. The Philippines under President Noynoy Aquino oppose the death penalty. The Government opposes it on Constitutional, philosophical, spiritual and pragmatic grounds. We subscribe to the human rights discourse that the methods of death penalty equate to cruel, degrading and inhumane punishment. Our Government believes that criminality will not magically dissipate just because the State allows for capital punishment. The leader of our republic is firmly entrenched in his belief that the antidote to criminality rests on a skilled and trusted law enforcement sector; an effective and time-conscious prosecutorial service; an independent and knowledgeable judiciary; a sound economy; and an empowered citizenry.
For the Philippines, in particular, the re-imposition of death penalty is especially contentious, deleterious and prejudicial to the economically disadvantaged amongst us. If you are poor, there is no question that it will be harder to defend your innocence. If you cannot understand the language of the law, you are' already at a disadvantage, from the beginning. On the other hand, the wealthy, the powerful and the well-connected, all have a dizzying array of legal and extra-legal options at their disposal, in order to avoid a sentence of death. Even without capital punishment, this is already an intolerable situation, and one that must be remedied. But the death penalty takes this travesty to an even more unconscionable level.
My insight as the current Secretary of Justice is that by far, the most damning testimony against capital punishment is the wrongful sentences that have plagued different jurisdictions in the world pursuing the hallow promise of death penalty. If you think about it, the most certain promise of death penalty is the collective nightmare of a people who will eventually wake up to realize that an erroneous death sentence is immutably, tragically irreversible.
When our President's father was handed the death sentence, his mother, the highly esteemed and well-loved former President Corazon Aquino, recalled that it was the first time she saw her formidable husband publicly shedding tears. A proud man, whose spirit was broken perhaps when he realized what Julius and Ethel Rosenberg recognized in their final and farewell letter to their sons: A death sentence bitterly extinguishes the distinct parental hope and aspiration to have the "tremendous joy and gratification of living [their] lives out" in the company of their beloved.
But intense public scrutiny, at both national and international fronts, prevented the dictator to carry out the death sentence of Ninoy Aquino and allowed him and his family to leave for the United States. Having witnessed that, our nation was taken to school and served with the lesson of how vigilance and a resonant demand for accountability can effectively shape political will and influence the landscape of policy and governance.
Whether we hail from countries where the death penalty is still active, or those where it has already been prohibited or abolished, we must never tire of reiterating and emphasizing the true facts. The death penalty kills innocent people. The death penalty disproportionately burdens the vulnerable and the marginalized. The death penalty has not been proven to deter violent crime.
In fact, we should not be afraid to go on the offensive. Challenge those who claim that there is an alleged deterrent effect. Tell them that they are barking up the wrong tree.
I am just as vociferously opposed to violent crime as anyone. But I am interested in real solutions, and not merely hollow political rhetoric.
Most certainly, not one that is so opposed to our cultural identity, that to re-impose it is akin to signalling the slow death of our spirit as a nation.
For to seek refuge in a course of action that is so irretrievable, so final, is to admit that there is no other possible solution but to extinguish the life of another human being; that we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we could purchase peace at the price of a life; that there is no room for Justice, but merely vengeance; that, quite simply, we no longer hold out any hope.
The death penalty, indeed, spells the death of our hope and our resilient spirit and, worse, spells the death of our collective innocence because the blood of those who will be executed will not be on the judge's hands or the executioner's, but the entire Filipino nation's.
Thus, we must collectively alter the minds of the unconvinced and ferret out these pockets of dissent and persuade them to be engaged in a
continuous dialogue with the end view of propagating what should be the universal message -- that humanity for the sake of humanity must
abolish death penalty!
Congratulations to the organizers, participants and advocates. I thank you again for the opportunity of this platform with our country as
a prime mover. Mabuhay po kayong lahat!