Chito Gascon, Beleaguered Champion of Human Rights

About Chito Gascon, former student activist and idealogue, and now the embattled chairman of the Commission on Human Rights.
IMAGE Joseph Pascual

SO, MR. GASCON: Where were you when a woman in our barangay was raped by a drug addict?

The question does not register. I may have mumbled my words—or my facetious tone viewed as inappropriate. Jose Luiz Martin “Chito” Gascon, chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, sworn enemy of President Duterte and staunch critic of the popular war on drugs, stares at me. My previous—admittedly limited—engagements with Gascon have been social, and I know him as a Coke-guzzling jokester. Yet there is little jest in our interview. We live in serious times.

“I don’t understand the question,” he replies. I repeat my query, and Gascon feigns a smile before saying: “Well, that’s a question we’ve been receiving a lot on social media. The term ‘human rights’ is something that I think is not fully appreciated or understood. As a result, we are often mistaken for what other institutions of government are supposed to do.”

Misunderstanding, of course, begets vitriol. And the social media troll is that vitriol’s incarnation. Online support groups of Duterte, Bongbong Marcos, and General Bato dela Rosa have circulated memes calling for the Commission’s abolition. Gascon and his staff have, of course, been subjected to multiple forms of online hate—pictures of guns sent to their inboxes, the usual cursing, and accusations of being drug lords.


IN THE CAB THAT TOOK ME FROM THE AIRPORT to the CHR headquarters in Diliman, Quezon City, I had braced myself for the inevitable comment: “Ah, ‘yang CHR. ‘Yung mga kakampi ng mga adik.” It was a long ride and it provided a chance to talk about the CHR. Yes, the Commission primarily monitors state violence, because you need somebody to police the police. No, it cannot protect citizens from drug addicts, because that is not its mandate. Yes, it can be toothless amid presidential power.


The driver admits to mistrusting CHR, but discovering what it actually did gave him pause. “Mabuti na lang po pinaliwanag niyo sa akin yan. Kasi, sa totoo lang, kung walang magpapaliwanag, ‘di naman namin alam ang ginagawa ng CHR.” Not knowing its functions, he added, made it easy to demonize the Commission.

It doesn’t help that this popular and populist president himself obviously dislikes the Commission. In his inauguration speech, he singled out the CHR and asked them to “allow us a level of governance that is consistent to our mandate.” The words were anodyne for the foul-mouthed president, but they masked a threat: Don’t get in my way, or else. Veering 2017away from the soaring rhetoric of the inauguration, Digong was recently more pithy: “…lahat kayo diyan sa Human Rights Commission, mga pangit.”

The anger may be blown out of proportion, but Gascon knows that it is based on legitimate concerns. People are disillusioned with a weak state, and they wanted quick results.

Gascon is possibly second only to Senator Leila de Lima (a former CHR Chair herself) on the list of the most despised people in Philippine politics. Yet the attention is disproportionate, because the agency he leads is powerless relative to the Palace. The CHR does not have the capacity to prosecute, let alone send anyone to jail. Its investigators look into state violations of human rights, but they can only provide recommendations to relevant authorities. It is up to a prosecutor to file a criminal case, and it is up to the police and the army to initiate internal administrative proceedings. They may choose to ignore the CHR, and they do so regularly, especially these days. “The anecdotal evidence” Gascon explains, “suggests that only 30 percent of our recommendations are ever considered.”

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That’s if they can even investigate. With a staff of barely 600, Gascon must look into the over 3,500 deaths associated with Duterte’s war on drugs. As of late October, the CHR had initiated only 251 fact-finding inquiries, which were in various degrees of progress. To the average citizen, these deaths are slowly becoming statistics. Inundated and desensitized, few people bother with the details.

Some cases—those that truly strain credulity—do gain public attention, such as that of father and son Renato and JP Bertes, who were tortured and killed by police inside a Pasay City jail. The reason for their deaths? Nanlaban—they fought back. When deaths occur, Duterte and his alter ego, Bato, assume that there was “regularity” in police procedure. The officers were just doing their jobs according to the books.

With cases like that of the Berteses, Gascon explains, you can simply “present its absurdity,” leading people to realize the more general truth that unbridled police power is not the way to counter criminality. Then you just plod on. “Fight each battle, work on each case, and ultimately find justice once,” which will hopefully lead to a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth time.


But probably not a 3,500th time. The scale of the deaths is overwhelming. And, for Gascon, it was mostly unexpected. When he took this job in June 2015—a distant past when a Senator named Grace Poe was topping the surveys—Gascon says he “had different ideas of what the challenges would be…” It’s an understatement, and we both know it. At another point in our conversation, Gascon is more categorical: “We have not seen this unprecedented level of violations of civil and political rights, not since the dictatorship.” In an interview with Foreign Policy, he called Duterte the “biggest challenge to democracy” since Marcos. Elsewhere, he compared the rise of Duterte to the rise of White Walkers: winter is coming.

None of this is to absolve previous presidents. Of course, “every single administration since the transition to democracy has their own share of human rights issues that they need to be held accountable for.” But there is something different with Duterte. By ordering police to kill drug dealers and users and by promising to defend them against critics, the president has enabled the impunity we now see. Gascon offers an admittedly clichéd metaphor: “You’ve thrown a pebble in the pond: it will create its ripples.”

Human rights are washed away by these ripples. Duterte himself says that he does not “care about human rights” and that they can serve as an excuse to “destroy the country.” His spokesperson, Ernesto Abella, claimed that the UN’s call for the Philippines to uphold rights was an imposition of “liberal Western values” on “an Asian nation that places a premium on common good…”—the standard response of despots who forget that Asian nations lobbied for and signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, as Australian historian Roland Burke has shown, the human rights architecture of the UN was largely designed by Filipinos like Carlos P. Romulo and Salvador P. Lopez, who served as chair of the UN human rights commission in the 1960s. President Duterte may be surprised to discover that the UN human rights monitoring system currently being used to investigate him was largely drafted by our own diplomats. But this is ancient history.

Once upon a time, we venerated our human rights advocates; these days, we troll them. The most significant change that has come is a shifting of political rhetoric: Those who defend human dignity are enemies of change and the torturer, Marcos, is now a hero. Amid this perfect storm of illiberalism, how much can one marginal government agency do? Defanged, pilloried, and obstructed, the CHR is, at times, reduced to an information-gathering agency.


So why the hatred? My own answer is that populists need bogeymen. Hitler told Germans to fear Jews, Joseph McCarthy told Americans to fear Communists, and the Brexiteers told Britain to fear migrants. Duterte wants you to fear the drug lord, the pusher, the addict, and people that “coddle” them, i.e. the human rights advocate. Hatred for a constructed “other” consolidates support around a strong, charismatic leader, who will protect the people from an external menace. Once the hysteria begins, it is hard to dial back.

The anger may be blown out of proportion, but Gascon knows that it is based on legitimate concerns. People are disillusioned with a weak state, and they want quick results. Protecting human rights, on the other hand, entails slow processes, and it has its own form of paranoia: somebody like Gascon values due process and the dignity of life so much that he will buck no violent shortcut to crime reduction. But slowness, like traffic, was unacceptable. “In the end,” he says, “the public wanted change. And here we are, change has happened. It may not be the change you or I want, but that’s where we are.”

G ascon is sanguine and understands that, at least in the short run, he is fighting a losing battle. How effective can his criticisms be when even he says that “Dutertismo is the only game in town,” with “even the so-called liberals joining the supermajority”?

“In a sense the pendulum has swung one way,” he concedes. “It will be a while before it swings back and we reach some kind of equilibrium.” His unenviable duty is to take “the cudgels for human rights even when it’s not popular.” It is “the biggest challenge of my life.”


GASCON IS AN EDSA-ERA ACTIVIST at a time when the democracy that People Power restored is undergoing significant strain. He is a familiar, if out-of-date, political archetype: gained a social consciousness through progressive Catholic teaching in the early ’80s, spurred to action against the dictatorship by the murder of Ninoy Aquino, marched with the crowds in February 1986, helped rebuild the edifice of our democracy after Ferdie fled.

Yet he is an exceptional version of this political archetype. In 1985, he won the student council election at the University of the Philippines, edging out the Communist-affiliated candidate in that hotbed of radicalism. As chairperson of the council, he offered a moderate alternative to violent revolution. Instead of supporting the Maoist Communist Party, he called on students to support Cory Aquino’s campaign in the snap election of ’85. After Marcos cheated Aquino, he led those same students to EDSA. And when Aquino called for a new constitution, Gascon became the youngest member of the constitutional convention.

In the late 1980s, social democrats like Chito Gascon represented a moderate alternative to the ideological extremes that competed for political influence. On one side, you had the fascist Marcos, who led a military dictatorship. On the other, there was the Maoist Communist Party and its burgeoning New People’s Army, which had peaked at 20,000 regular troops—a credible military and political threat.


The social democrats, along with many middle-class liberals, were a potent middle force: They were an anti-Marcos coalition that, unlike the Communists, did not wish to abolish the dictatorship only to establish a new one. “I was an activist, but I wasn’t a Communist,” explains Gascon. “I believed in democracy.”

This democratic movement would become the backbone of People Power, and Gascon was its student icon.

For a man with such a storied career, Dutertian social media has unfortunately reduced Gascon’s CV to his involvement with the Liberal Party. Yet there is no avoiding the issue. Though he disengaged with the LP after his CHR appointment, the now middle-aged Gascon can look back at his long political career and see that most of it was spent as a dilawan.

“In 1986, there was no social democratic party,” recalls Gascon. “Of all the traditional political parties, the Liberal Party seemed most open to reform.” At the time, the LP’s president was the revered Senator Jovito Salonga, whom even the radical Communists respected.

Once upon a time, we venerated our human rights advocates; these days, we troll them.

Along with fellow social democrats, Gascon called on moderate activists to join the LP and reform it from within. As LP members, activists like Gascon sought to transform it into a cohesive, programmatic political force, unlike other parties which are simply amalgams of vested interests. Gascon became leader of the party’s youth wing, head of its think tank, and, much later, its director general.

He has no regrets, but Gascon is likewise sanguine about his time with the LP. “I’ve tried my best to transform it, to make it more programmatic,” he claims. “But, looking back now, I have to say my mission failed.” He concludes, “The reality is that [our political system] does not engender party-based politics.” No wonder the LP has now been whipped into submission, unable to assert itself as a credible opposition.


GASCON’S FAILURE IS NOT JUST HIS OWN. And it is not just the Liberal Party that is in tatters, but post-EDSA liberal democracy as a whole. When Mocha Uson and your tito ask for more “disiplina,” they are telling you that open discourse and due process are inefficient. They want authoritarianism. When a president and a Supreme Court honor a former dictator as a hero, they’re saying this authoritarianism business might not be such a bad idea.

Had previous leaders done a better job, perhaps people would have more faith in our democratic institutions, and we would have been able to avert this crisis. “Those who were given the opportunity to serve previously,” Gascon says, “have failed in many respects, even if there are many things they can be proud of.”


Gascon does not wince when discussing his failures and challenges. Frustration, at times, may kick in, but the human rights advocate plays the long game. With the failure of his party-building project—and perhaps the failure of the entire EDSA system he helped create—Gascon is back where he started. And there is something liberating about being back in the bottom.

“Right now, in a sense, I’m going back to basics. I was moved into action by the human rights violations I saw happening during the dictatorship. And now I have been given an opportunity to serve the people in an institution that is mandated to promote human rights, in a set of circumstances that are not ideal.”

Throughout our conversation, Gascon keeps referring back to a world without “equilibrium.” Something is, indeed, out of whack. Yet the old activist is hopeful and idealistic, ever ready to provide inspirational quotes about never giving up a political struggle: “The revolution you aspire for is out there in the horizon. It’s something you never give up on.”

But his real strength lies in a prosaic stoicism. “Over time, we will reach some kind of equilibrium again,” he assures me. “But I think it will take some time. Things will get worse before they get better.”

Not so reassuring after all. How much worse and how much longer? “Your guess is as good as mine.”

In the meantime, we both know that there will likely be more cases of extrajudicial killings tomorrow. Like the revolutionary horizon that Gascon chases, the end of the CHR’s caseload seems to recede more as one walks forward.

But this is Gascon’s job. Tomorrow, when he gets to his desk, he will hear of another death. Chairperson Chito Gascon will do what he can.

This article was originally published under the title "Being Human," in the December 2016 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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Lisandro Claudio
Lisandro E. Claudio (@leloyclaudio on Twitter) is an Associate Professor at the Department of History, De La Salle University.
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