By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA — A light at the end of this dark tunnel. That is how the May 2010 presidential elections was described by Loida Nicolas-Lewis, head of Bisyon 2020 or the Business for Integrity and Stability of Our Nation, when she opened last Tuesday’s presidential forum on integrity and human rights in a posh hotel in Makati.
The election is an “opportunity to make a fresh start and to forge brave solutions to our massive problems, especially those that have to do with corruption and human rights,” Lewis said.
And the problems are getting more massive, she said. Every time she revisits the Philippines since she reacquired her Filipino citizenship, she “sees families living on cariton (wooden carts). Sixty to 70 students without a permanent teacher in a classroom, if they have a classroom. Roads built with substandard materials so that the first typhoon would wash away these roads… A justice system that is like a kangaroo court where he who holds the gold rules. Very sick people lying on mats outside the hospital rooms since no rooms are available… Private armies of local officials with arms and guns marked from the Philippine Army, unexplained killings of activists and more recently journalists and relatives of rival politicians murdered without mercy. The list goes on and on.”
Bisyon 2020 is an organization of business persons who are committed to pool and mobilize the resources of the business community to support organized, professional, and sustained initiatives to fight corruption on the national and local levels. The chair of Bisyon’s board of trustees, Lewis is the chairperson and CEO of TLC Beatrice International Holdings, Inc., a two-billion-dollar corporation of 64 companies based in 31 countries. In 1994, she was ranked first among the “Top 50 Women Business Owners in America” by the Working Woman magazine. A lawyer and businesswoman, she is being described as the richest Filipino living abroad.
The election “promotes opportunities for a new generation of democratic leaders,” said Renaud Meyer, resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Meyer said he hoped that with the forum the “anti-democratic character of corruption” would be threshed out by the presidential bets.
In convening a presidential forum on integrity and human rights, Meyer, along with the CHR (Commission on Human Rights) and other conveners such as the Transparency International, had hoped to not only hear the candidates’ platforms, especially those that hinge on combating corruption “using a human rights perspective,” but also to motivate them to forge a covenant for a human-rights-based platform that they would hopefully follow through if he or she got elected.
In the Philippines’s “uniquely raucous” elections, every candidate would once again “peddle the word change,” said CHR chairperson Leila de Lima. Change would be packaged in more common forms, but before one gets lost in these forms, de Lima added, everybody should seek out “change based on human rights.” De Lima described these rights as not just being limited to freedom from extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances or torture, but also include the right to food, shelter, free media, freedom of assembly, security and safety, information, justice and vindication of rights.
All the conveners of the forum on integrity believed that “corruption negates human rights.” Its “anti-democratic character and disrespect of the Philippine constitution” are very clearly illustrated in the Ampatuan massacre, said Meyer.
The Ampatuan massacre is “the most dreadful exposition of corruption as a human rights violation,” said de Lima. A human rights violation in itself, this massacre, she said, also illustrated other rights violations connected to the massacre. De Lima cited poverty, thievery, election fraud, wholesale terrorism and corruption in checks and balances of local government and national government as the other violations.
“What happened in Maguindanao should serve as impetus in choosing better leaders,” de Lima said.
For years and years corruption has been discussed and promised to be acted upon, but, Meyer said, nothing has changed. They hoped linking anti-corruption strategies to human rights might do it.
“Can we make 2010 the most meaningful election?” de Lima asked.
Unfortunately, most presidential candidates seem to have a low regard for human rights. For one, few presidential aspirants turned up at the forum on integrity and human rights. Yet, as early as three months ago, they had already been invited, Ms Lewis told Bulatlat. “Until last week,” she said, they were talking to the chiefs of staff and secretaries of Villar, Gordon, Estrada, and Teodoro. “They said their principals would be out of town. This is about integrity, justice, corruption and human rights. They chose to be somewhere else. You draw your own conclusion.”
Worse, one of the leading presidential candidates said that he does not discount declaring martial law in the future.