That State of the Nation Address was SO long. Whoever wrote it must be told that messages should be understood. You write a speech for more than thirty minutes and you’re bound to send your audience to sleep. In fact, beyond difficulties in staying awake, one felt literally drained by the time the President concluded his remark. And yes, I’m sure the President himself was exhausted after reading that opus.
Content-wise, President Aquino truly deserves a high mark of at least 80%. Even his staunchest critics must acknowledge that this is a President who has regained the trust of investors in this country. Gross domestic product has grown by a better-than-expected 6.4 percent for the first quarter. The peso is one of the strongest currencies in the region and the stock market is among the best performing in the world. The conditional cash transfer program. albeit controversial, has almost certainly made the difference between dying of poverty and subsistence for at least 4 million of its beneficiaries. Our schoolchildren will soon have a textbook each, and the daunted classroom and school chair shortage will be history by next year. What a difference good governance can do! While corruption still persists, one cannot deny that the problem is being addressed when highest official of the land leads by example.
So why, despite these, am I giving the President a grade of only 80 percent? Why not a 90 or even 100?
To begin with, I have naturally high expectations of President Aquino. My conviction has always been that anyone can do better than former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The truth is that we hit absolute rock bottom under Arroyo that the only way to go is up. That’s the law of physics.
I think a grade of 80 percent applies because there are areas of governance that the President completely ignored in his address and in his performance. Foremost of these is in the field of human rights and our failed criminal justice system.
What Mr. Aquino and his advisers probably do not know is that a working justice system and the protection and promotion of human rights are also accepted indicators of good governance and economic development. Contrary to the claims of many tiger economies, there is no antipathy between economic development and the promotion of human rights. In fact, the discharge of state responsibilities anent these rights is viewed as investment in human capital. This explains why many of the very developed economies of Northern America, Europe and Latin America are also bastions of democratic principles and human rights.
Furthermore, Aquino owed it the nation to address these issues in his Sona. Only last June, the Philippines was the subject of the Universal Peer Review in the United Nations Human Rights Council. There, one country after another berated the Philippines for its failure to punish the perpetrators of extralegal killings, enforced disappearances and torture. You would think that because of the tenacity of these criticisms, the President would choose the Sona to give assurance that his administration acknowledges the problem and that he will address it. But no, not a word was said about human rights. This has prompted at least two senior diplomats to remark that apparently, the PNoy administration is oblivious to their concerns expressed in the UPR.
What’s even sadder is that as a victim of human rights violations himself, the President has every reason to give priority to the promotion and protection of fundamental rights. He still rages in anger recalling how his mother and his sisters were subjected to degrading and humiliating treatment whenever they visited Ninoy in his detention. And of course, as a very young man, he himself became a victim of extralegal killing when his father was martyred in 1983.
What to do?
Well, since I’ve had first hand experience with the President when we successfully lobbied that the Philippines become a member of the International Criminal Court, I have not given up on him. My experience is that because of the many issues he has to deal with, one has to be patient and yet clear on why emphasis should be accorded this field. Already, Max De Mesa of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates and Katarungan, an umbrella organization of HR advocates focused on putting an end to extralegal killings an enforced disappearances, have agreed to plot a master plan on how Aquino’s experience as a victim could be the trigger to his presidency’s potential legacy as a champion of both economic development and human rights. This much we should do since I have repeatedly said that we may be the next victims of impunity.