Note: Below is the Commencement Address of Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno (ret.) during the 99th University Commencement of Silliman University on March 18, 2012, Silliman Gymnasium. Coinciding with this event was a conferral of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, on the honorable former Chief Justice. (To read the story, click: Silliman Confers Honorary Degree on Former Chief Justice.)
SERVE THE POOR
Hon. Reynato S. Puno
22nd Chief Justice, Supreme Court of the Philippines
In a short while, you will be given your diploma attesting to the fact that you have graduated from this venerable institution of learning, the Silliman University. This diploma means you are now a certified intellectual, a cut above the rest of our citizenry. As a certified intellectual, you have been endowed with a distinct power, the power of knowledge. This power of knowledge, its use or misuse, can make or unmake you just as it can make or unmake others in your sphere of influence. In the midst of your joy today, I ask you to remember that you are a graduate of a Christian institution “committed to total human development for the well-being of society and environment.”
Some two weeks ago, a national newspaper carried the following front page news:
PINOY’S ANXIETY ON ECONOMY
INTENSIFIES, SURVEY SHOWS
The body of the news reads:
Filipinos are getting more anxious about the economy and how it affects them, according to a Laylo Research Strategies survey.
The Jan. 25-Feb. 6 poll, which covered 1,500 respondents, showed 65% of Filipinos are anxious about where the country is headed. Xxx
Asked, “in your opinion, is the country in general headed in the right on the wrong direction?” only 35% say the country is on the right track.
x x x
In terms of quality of life, the survey showed that 65% of the respondents tend to have fewer gainers and optimists too. “A majority of them consider their families as underprivileged. More among them are currently not working.
Comparing those who are anxious with those who are satisfied with the direction the country is taking, fewer are happy with government efforts to curb corruption and address poverty, it stressed.
(Daily Tribune, March 5, 2012, p. 1)
Let me repeat that “… fewer are happy with government efforts… to address poverty.” On the same day, a columnist, Mr. Ricardo Saludo of Manila Times wrote about our rising hunger, to wit:
x x x
In the Philippines, xxx the hunger incidence rose in the 14th quarter 2011 Social Weather Stations xxx hitting 22.5% of 4.5 Million Filipinos. That brought the 2011 average to 19.1%, higher than the 18.5% mean in 2008.
He then cited the UN Food and Agriculture Organization prediction that hunger will get worse in third world countries because food prices will still to go up due to world population growth, expanding use of crops for biofuel and rising demand from fast growing, more and more affluent economies. Other factors that will jack up food prices beyond the reach of the poor are: (1) increasingly unpredictable farm conditions due to climate change, drought and changes in rainfall, (2) overfishing with too much investment in fishing, new technologies and illegal fishing, (3) deterioration of river systems due to pollution, agricultural runoff and dams (4) reduced investment in agriculture (5) corrupt over importation and hoarding of food leading to rotting stocks (6) falling household incomes due to the economic downturn and (7) rising prices of farm inputs like fertilizer and diesel fuel.
Similarly, a snapshot of the environmental picture of the Philippines is disturbing. Studies are one that “the country is now a major ‘ecological hotspot.’ Xxx Its forest are critically endangered, as forest cover is now down to 18%. This has put the lives of 284 endangered species of plant and animal life in precarious balance. It is rapidly losing its freshwater resources; all our 158 major rivers are unfit for drinking and 50 of our rivers are biologically dead, meaning they cannot support any form of life.” (Social Justice in East and Southeast Asia, p. 77).
A few days ago, the Heritage Foundation released its ranking of Economic Freedom of countries all over the world. The Philippines was graded “mostly unfree,” behind Cambodia, and way, way behind Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. According to Heritage Foundation, “economic freedom is a crucial component of liberty. It empowers people to work, produce, consume, own, trade and invest according to their personal choices.”
I stress all these disquieting news because they will hit the poor hardest. Hence, I call on you to use your knowledge, your new power to promote the socio-economic rights of our poor people. No less than our 1987 Constitution ordains the State to help the poor. Thus, it provides:
Art. XIII. Sec. 1. The Congress shall give highest priority to enactment of measures that protect and enhance the right of all people to human dignity, reduce social, economic, and political inequalities, and remove cultural inequities by equitably diffusing wealth and political power for the common good.
To this end, the State shall regulate the acquisition, ownership, use and disposition of property and its increments.
Sec. 2. The promotion of social justice shall include the commitment to create economic opportunities based on freedom of initiative and self-reliance.
Article XII on the National Economy and Patrimony states in unmistakable terms the equitable goals of the national economy and the social purpose of property in the following provisions:
Sec. 1. The goals of national economy, are more equitable distribution of opportunities, income and wealth; a sustained increase in the amount of good and services produced by the nation for the benefit of the people; and an expanding productivity as the key to raising the quality of life for all, especially the underprivileged.
x x x
In pursuit of these goals, all sectors of the economy and all regions of the country shall be given optimum opportunity to develop. Private enterprises, including corporations, cooperatives, and similar collective organizations, shall be encouraged to broaden the base of their ownership.
Sec. 6. The use of property bears a social function, and all economic agents shall contribute to the common good. Individuals and private groups, including corporations, cooperatives, and similar collective organizations, shall have the right to own, establish, and operate economic enterprises, subject to the duty of the State to promote distributive justice and to intervene when the common good so demands.
Be that as it may, these ideals of the Constitution are not translated as realities on the ground. I like to stress that the socio-economic rights of the poor can never be relegated to the sidelines because they are in truth, essential conditions for the full enjoyment of civil and political rights. Liberty can be meaningful only if the individual enjoys a certain degree of material security. Freedom of expression, for instance, is of little value to the illiterate whose interest is more on how to fill up his empty stomach. To quote President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who led in espousing freedom from want:
“We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people – whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth – is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure… We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.”
A fuller justification of socio-economic right is that, these rights are inherently valuable. These socio-economic rights relate to the fundamental elements of the individual’s physical nature. Human beings cannot be fully human unless their basic needs are met. The enjoyment of human life depends upon the fulfillment of these basic needs. Thus, the right to life is desecrated when human beings do not have access to adequate food or nutrition, housing or medical care. Indeed, more human lives are lost due to poverty and lack of access to food or health care than by intentional state killings. Thus, it is estimated that there was an average of 1.69 million of extra-legal killings per year in the twentieth century. In comparison, approximately 11 million children alone die every year, across the globe from preventable diseases and inadequate nutrition. Eliminating hunger is therefore just as essential if not more important than prohibiting state killings in protecting the right to life.
We should not be weary in promoting the socio-economic rights of the poor, however difficult it may be. Let us be tireless in giving substance to the right to equality of the marginalized sectors of our society. Legal philosophers and social scientists may quibble about how to achieve this equality but we cannot quarrel about the compelling reasons why we should reduce the gap of inequality between the rich and the poor. Let me cite some of these compelling reasons: one, that large inequalities in wealth inevitably result in disparities in political power and bias in the enforcement of laws. Indeed, only the nearsighted cannot see that in our country, real political power is a monopoly of the rich; it is a luxury of the poor. Likewise, it is obvious that the enforcement of our law is often tilted against poor and the powerless. Visit any prison and count the number of the rich and poor and you will see their disparity in number; second, we need to eliminate the “involuntary disadvantage” in life of the poor because some measure of equality is necessary for their dignity. As studies show, the poor are not only poor but worse, they are treated with suspicion and dismissed with contempt by society. A scholar called this anomaly the “stigmatizing differences in status” which irreparably dehumanizes the marginalized; third, equality is desirable because equal treatment implements the divine duty to show equal respect. Showing equal respect implies recognizing that all people have the natural capacities think for themselves, to engage in activities that are intrinsically invaluable and to develop skills that are admirable; it means there is no inferior race, no inferiority due to accidents of birth, neither inferiority due to incidents of color; fourth, economic inequalities tear apart social solidarity, the tie that binds family, the thread that unites people, because they create high barriers to friendship, community and love; and fifth, economic inequalities will result in the exploitation of the many by the few and this domination is the very antithesis of democracy for democracy is the sovereignty of the many, the rule of the ordinary, not the kingship of the royalty or who labor under the hallucination that they are divine and infallible. A continuously neglected poor is like a dagger pointed at the heart of democracy.
The poor will forever be poor unless they are legally empowered. The four pillars of legal empowerment of the poor are: acquisition of property rights, business rights, labor rights, and access to justice. Legal empowerment of the poor is not the ceremonial throwing of occasional crumbs of charity to the poor accompanied by the blare of trumpets and the beating of drums. Legal empowerment is about guaranteeing the poor with demandable rights, arming them with effective means to enforce these rights, and giving them unimpeded access in our political and judicial systems. The law ought to be the great equalizer. It must pull up the poor without pulling down the rich. For if law cannot push up the poor at the bottom who are many, it will push down the few who are at the top.
The first pillar of legal empowerment of the poor is helping them acquire property rights. Harvard President Larry Summers, who was also the former US Secretary for Treasury, has been quoted as saying: “The poor should be able to borrow money so that they could own something where they and their children could live. I don’t think there is any single thing that would do more than to create strong families and I don’t think there is anything more than strong families that would contribute to the development of the next generation. And that goes back to legal rights and legal empowerment.”
The second and the third pillars of legal empowerment of the poor are helping them in the acquisition of business and of labor rights. Again, this is not easy for many of our poor do not have the means to start business, and even if they have, they have no skills to run a business enterprise. In the same manner, the poor will face a lot of difficulties getting employment and even if they do, they do not have the knowhow to enforce their rights as employees. The fourth pillar of legal empowerment of the poor is giving them unhampered access to justice. We can give them all the rights in the world but if these rights cannot be enforced, they are at best a teasing illusion, an outright insult to the lost, the last and the least of our people. But this is exactly the paradox of the socio-economic rights of our poor people. Their socio-economic rights are etched in the Constitution but they are not embedded in the Bill of Rights which means they are not demandable as a matter of right from the State unlike civil and political rights. A right without the remedy to enforce the right is a mere paper right, a toothless right, a right that might as well been denied for it is next to nil.
The poor awaits your help, your idealism. Poverty must not be the lot of the super majority of our people. The poor cannot be the permanent pariahs of our society. We all have a stake in the empowerment of the poor. They cannot continue to be overlooked and underserved. We cannot continue to struggle against the poor. The poor have to win. The only way for the poor to win this struggle is for us to allow them to win.
Again, congratulations to the graduates!