Government News Analysis

A few loose ends

Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo

On Monday, Filipinos were urged to respect the country’s institutions – the Office of the Ombudsman (OoO), the Supreme Court (SC), the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the like. The directive came from Philippine Vice President, Leni Robredo (photo). It seemed to imply that there’s a commandment somewhere which makes respect of Philippine institutions mandatory. But what Robredo evidently fails to see is that respect – like trust – must be earned; it can never be demanded. Simply, what she’s suggesting can never work.

Robredo believes the public should unquestioningly rally behind these institutions. Here’s what she said: “We need to respect the independence of these institutions as provided for by the Constitution in order for them to fulfil their mandate of keeping the government clean and sincere”.

If that statement wasn’t so laughable it would be regarded as sick. The reason why these institutions are not respected is precisely because they’ve failed the test of independence and have historically disappointed in keeping the government “clean and sincere”. Perpetually corrupt and disingenuous is actually how most people view them.

In fact, as far as those institutions are concerned – and others such as the Philippine Senate (PS), the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) and the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) – it’s hard to see how they’ve been even attempting to earn the respect (and the trust for that matter) of the nation.

Each of these institutions has managed – without any outside help – to drag themselves into a sordid light. Right now, concurrently, the OoO, SC, CHR, PCGG and COMELEC are embroiled in controversies – in some cases involving the alleged scandalous behaviour of their highest-ranking officers. In three of these – the OoO, SC and COMELEC – efforts are underway to impeach their leaders.

Urging Filipinos to get behind these institutions, Robredo added this: “In the middle of these current issues facing these constitutional offices, the strong will of every Filipino is once again needed. Let us all be united and stand behind our Constitution and all these democratic institutions, including the impartial Ombudsman”.

Best of luck with that sales pitch Leni, but things have changed in the Philippines in case she hasn’t noticed. The people have stopped buying snake oil; they’re demanding – of all things – results rather than hollow words; sincerity that’s tangible, not just the usual emotional outbursts and drama-queening.

The Ombudsman can never be regarded as impartial on Robredo’s say so; its employer is the Filipino people. They’ll decide for themselves how impartial it is. The Republic of the Philippines is a democracy, not an autocracy – and that means that the institutions of the state are answerable to the people. It’s not such a difficult concept.

Certainly, the public would relish the chance to respect all these institutions; to be proud of them. The problem is, they’ve made that practically impossible.

All were designed to be independent of the executive branch of government; and rightly so. Unfortunately, though, they’ve shown themselves to be anything but politically independent. Each – we exclude the SC here; that suffers from quite different behavioural problems: The Shambolic Court (SC) – to some degree has been shown to have strong allegiances to the Liberal Party. All are clearly seen as opposing the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte. This, of course, makes a complete nonsense of the independence and impartiality they like to project.

Robredo’s own workplace – the Office of the Vice President (OVP); another constitutional institution – is in a similar plight. Far from gaining the country’s respect, it’s managed to repel it. Robredo’s unabashed use of that office as a damage-control machine during the Christmas Day typhoon that wreaked havoc on her home region of Bicol, as she enjoyed a holiday in the US, has not been forgotten. And demands for respect of her office will only damage it further.

Typhoon Nina formed on 20 December and by 22 December had been upgraded to a severe tropical storm. It was clear by then that the Philippines lay directly in its path. The following day, as Nina intensified into a typhoon, Robredo, along with her three daughters, boarded a flight for America.

On Christmas Day Nina hit the Philippines with 160 miles an hour wind blasts and became the equivalent of a Category 5. And as the Robredo family-reunion celebrations went ahead in New York or Pennsylvania or wherever, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos spend their Christmas Day in crowded evacuation centres as there homes were being destroyed.

The OVP was thrown into public-relations mode as it scrambled to repair Robredo’s image. Now cast as an absentee official at a time of national crisis, it didn’t help when her spokesperson, Georgina Hernandez, tried to calm adverse social-media chatter by explaining: “The Vice President travelled for a family reunion to the United States for the break. She will be going home to Naga [in Bicol] as soon as she arrives [back, in the New Year]”.

And almost as if to suggest that Robredo had no choice but to leave, Hernandez explained that the holiday had been planned for more than a year – as if that was a good enough reason to prevent her from staying behind with her countrymen.

 

Ever since then – the OVP has failed to win the respect Robredo seems to believe is automatically due to it.

Then, in March, she lost her office even more respect when she delivered a six minute video to a fringe gathering of the 60th annual meeting of United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. In this she purposely put President Rodrigo Duterte in a bad light claiming that 7,000 souls had perished as a result of his Drug’s War. Social media was outraged; as far as they were concerned she’d sold the country down the river.

Solicitor General, Jose Calida, ready to impeach Robredo for her comments, said this: “VP Robredo debased her office and herself by betraying the trust of our people. The carping VP has joined the ranks of the destabilisers”.

Meanwhile, at the weekend, another anti-Duterte force stepped into the limelight. Local human-rights lobby, the Philippine Universal Periodic Review Watch (PUPRW) – comprising church figures and human-rights activists – called on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) to revoke the Philippines’ UNHCR membership.

A rabid critic of Duterte, the PUPRW released a statement in which it said this: “The Philippines has exhibited a total mockery of international human rights mechanisms, with the government’s blatant distortion of facts on extrajudicial killings and human rights violations in the country, its record of using the UN as a platform to justify its crimes against the Filipino people, and its doubletalk on compliance to human rights instruments”.

That statement doubled down and doubled down again on Robredo’s video message. But it went further still as it attempted to convince 39 countries – states that had expressed concerns over human rights in the Philippines – to suspend all financial and logistical support to the Philippine security establishment.

It was an outrageous suggestion which again put the Philippines in a bad light internationally. But then that seems to have been part of its intention. If it wasn’t, then it was a disgraceful and naive miscalculation that placed this group’s selfish agenda above any national consideration – even that of national defence.

Yesterday, Presidential Spokesperson, Ernesto Abella, responded. Referring to the PUPRW he said: “Self-styled watchdogs of the Philippines’ human rights performance need to balance their call with legitimate organisations like the United Nations Human Right Council, which recognises the work the Philippines does, given and despite its challenges”.

In an earlier statement, however, Abella left the country’s human-rights critics in no doubt about how seriously the administration takes Philippine sovereignty. “We will always be happy to accept the help of our foreign friends. But we will never accept dictation on how we are managing our own internal domestic processes”.

Finally, in a separate initiative, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) – the supreme ecclesiastical authority of the Philippine Catholic Church – announced that it’ll provide sanctuary to any police officer who comes forward to expose extrajudicial killings (EJKs) linked to Duterte’s War on Drugs.

The offer was extended by outgoing CBCP president, Archbishop Socrates Villegas – perhaps the president’s most bitter critic among the clergy. Claiming that a number of police officers had confidentially approached the Church – “their spiritual leaders; to seek sanctuary, succor and protection – he said that they were ready to reveal their alleged participation in EJKs because “Their consciences are troubling them”.

The Church, he said, would be examining their claims while it offered them and their families “accommodation, shelter and protection” – no need for an Ombudsman then or Senate hearings for that matter. We can leave Archbishop Villegas and his fellow bishops to get to the bottom of all this.

The clergy and the religious, Villegas declared should “open their hearts and their rectories, the convents of religious communities and seminaries as well as other secure buildings” to house and protect “such law enforcers who wish to testify”. Those testimonies, he said, would be taken by lay lawyers – in other words, very likely another anti-Duterte group.

The public, we’re sure, would warm to the Church far more if it extended the same sanctuary and considerations to the children who’ve suffered sexual abuse at the hands of its priests. It would be even more grateful if it facilitated the taking of affidavits and depositions from those victims so that those priests could be prosecuted for their perversions.

And if it can put its rectories and convents at the disposal of police officers, when they don’t require them, maybe they could make them available to those who have no homes – they’re not difficult to find; they’re around every cathedral in every city in the country.

But we don’t expect to see any of that, however. Christian charity is not what this is about. This is purely part of Villegas’s crusade to confront the president on the national stage. Duterte is a man for whom the archbishop doesn’t hide his loathing.

In short then, this is the Church once more involving itself in matters of state. Other than providing sanctuary for supposedly troubled souls, nothing else that Villegas has proposed is any part of the Church’s work.

The Church is not authorised by the state to be some adjunct of the judiciary; furthermore, constitutionally, it’s supposed to be wholly removed from any involvement in state affairs. What it’s expected to practice is priest-craft, not state-craft.

But the Philippine Church has become a rogue Church – it defies Rome and its repeated urgings to remain outside politics. Pope Benedict XVI dealt with this issue specifically in his 2006 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, which stated that social justice “must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church”.

The Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, the de facto Primate of the Philippines, therefore, needs to step up from out of the shadows and call his bishops to order. If he can’t keep control of his own bishops and ensure they follow Rome’s directive on this issue, then his fitness as the leader of this Church must also be in question.

The Church, like all those other institutions, has also lost the public’s respect and trust. Falling mass numbers bear this out for one thing; ever more dissatisfaction with the Church’s leaders expressed by the flock also shows this. Of course, the Church doesn’t listen to them; on the contrary wherever possible it seeks to silence them.

Filipino Catholics are among the most devout of any of God’s children. They love their Heavenly Father, they adore Jesus, they revere the Blessed Mother. Their faith is virtually unshakeable. But, increasingly, that faith stands strong and resolute despite the Church and despite a cluster of politically driven bishops who seem to value political mammon above the true needs of the flock.

The fact is that those bishops, along with Robredo and the PUPRW are all part of the anti-Duterte nexus and are involved in nothing more spiritual than a push for power – power, moreover, which they can only claim by bringing down a man whom the people have chosen to lead them.

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