Commentary: The dirty job needed to make human rights work

BEING a political realist, I tend to always look for the “who.” As political philosopher Raymond Geuss discussed in Philosophy and Real Politics, the “who question” is one of the three fundamental questions a political realist seeks to answer; the other two are the question of legitimacy and the question of priorities, preferences, and timing.

The “who question” is very important because, as Geuss argued, “the impersonalized statements one might be inclined to make about human societies generally require, if they are to be politically informative, elaboration into statements about particular concrete people doing things to other people.”

Abstractions like “human rights” do not just simply arrive in the world and perform their magic. Even the incantation Open Sesame requires an Ali Baba to utter it in order to open the cave full of treasures. Laws related to human rights need a set of institutions in order to be realized; and institutions need people with strong political will.

Human rights laws are not self-enforcing. Any law only becomes effective if it is obeyed. Obedience does not come cheap: we obey the law either because we believe in it or out of fear of punishment or both.

As a political realist, I am more inclined to think that it is fear of the law that keeps it effective. In The Prince, Machiavelli said that it is better to be feared than loved. I believe it applies to law as well. People, Machiavelli said, “have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of [humans], is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

However, fear only works if the law is strongly enforced and the punishment is harsh. Without strong enforcement, following the law, as President Rodrigo Duterte would put it, becomes optional.

You cannot do away with a strongman, if by strongman one means someone who has a strong political will to enforce the law. Even the darling of political science, i.e. institutions, need leaders with strong political will in order to be effective because institutions are only as strong as the people helming them.

Even if we live under the regime of human rights, strong political will is still necessary because our rights are not just contradictory, they are also “not compossible, that is, the implementation of one human right can requires the violation of another, or the protection of a human right of one person may require the violation of the same human right of another,” as University of Essex Emeritus Professor Michael Freeman explained in his introductory book on Human Rights. Thus, institutions need leaders with strong political will in order to enforce laws that would protect the rights of some people at the expense of others. That is an inescapable political reality.

At the heart of enforcing laws, including human rights law, is force. It is a necessarily violent task. Duterte’s presidency has lifted the fig leaf of that political reality and made us see the dirty job needed to be done in order to make human rights work and to maintain the order that sustains it.

Because Duterte is willing to do the dirty work and quite frank about what it requires, the “disente” folks who are either naive or hypocrites are scandalized by him. They are so used to seeing the fig leaf of democracy and the white-collar workers running its bureaucracy. But political realists like me know very well that order is a dirty business; and without doing the dirty job to keep order, no human rights law could ever be realized.

A more reasonable critique of Duterte then does not start from the premise of absolutist pacifism that sees violence as absolutely unjustified. There are legitimate and illegitimate uses of force. Has Duterte already used force illegitimately? That is the question the opposition must persuasively answer in order for them to be taken seriously.

(Published in The Manila Times on 27 July 2017)

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