"We have entered a period of darkness, the sun is gone, night has fallen."
With these words, Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chairman Chito Gascon decried the lack of public support for human rights as the country faces a challenging period.
"Although we are a tropical country, winter has come. It is in this period of darkness that we shall all be tested as we fight for human rights," he said in a message to hundreds of human rights workers, guests from the international community, and honorees as the commission celebrated its 30th anniversary on Thursday in ceremonies at the CHR headquarters in Diliman, Quezon City.
"Since 2016, a new government has come to power and human rights is once more under assault," he said.
"Not just CHR as an institution, but the very idea of human rights. There is a lack of public support, or empathy for the principles and values of human rights," Gascon lamented, citing the need for human rights advocates to work harder, be more creative, and develop strategies to stay the course.
He said the fundamental problem on human rights is impunity.
Gascon cited the discovery of a secret detention facility in Tondo, Manila last week but admitted that the CHR has its own shortcomings. He said they were unable to remove the 12 detainees from police custody.
He warned against the impunity being committed in the present, saying that what is happening now are the most "egregious atrocities and violations of fundamental human rights" not seen since the end of martial rule.
"We remain influenced by the legacies of authoritarian rule," he said.
Callamard in attendance
The event was attended by members of the diplomatic community, including representatives from the UN, EU, Spain, and Australia who gave messages of solidarity.
Also in attendance were former CHR commissioners and employees led by former chair Etta Rosales.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Dr. Agnes Callamard also attended the event but did not speak. She also refused to grant an interview.
According to Gascon, Callamard is in the country for an academic purpose, to attend a forum co-sponsored by CHR and FLAG at UP Diliman in Quezon City on Friday and Saturday.
Gascon disclosed in his speech that the CHR has been granted an "A" status as a national human rights institution by GANHRI (Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institution), which means it has direct access to UN international mechanisms.
In his speech, Gascon narrated the beginnings of the CHR after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship and the rise of democratic institutions that followed, including the CHR, the first national human rights organization in Southeast Asia and one of a handful in the world back then.
But a particular topic that dominated the program was the issue of extra-judicial killings. The highlight of the night were citations given to members of various sectors that continue to address the issue.
Recipients included Anna Nicole Alyssandra Aliasas, who was the first protester at the Libingan ng mga Bayani during the burial of former President Ferdinand Marcos; Anne Nicole de Castro, a student who became the subject of online harassment when she joined a protest against the burial of Marcos; Alyssa Faye Cabalang, a law student responsible for a viral Facebook post clarifying the mandate of the CHR; the Redemptorists, a religious congregation actively condemning extrajudicial execution in the country; Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), a group of human rights lawyers providing free legal service; and the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) - In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDefend), a coalition of human rights groups opposed to extrajudicial killings. - with a report from Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News