On CALD Women’s Caucus Conference & Workshop
Women Empowering Women: Experiences Across Asia
11 August 2017
Greetings from the Detention Facility of the Philippine National Police in Camp Crame.
Liberty, equality, truth, justice, and a government that respects the rule of law and is accountable to the people, with public servants that recognize, respect, uphold and protect the human dignity and the inherent and inalienable human rights of their people.
Twenty-one months ago, I stood up for these values and put myself up for consideration by the Filipino people as their representative to the Philippine Senate. I – who has had no experience as a politician, who had, thus far, been a lawyer, both in the private and public practice, and a human rights advocate – finally decided to venture into the fickle world of politics, even though I knew how treacherous life in that arena could get.
Fifteen months ago, in May 2016, 14 million registered Filipino voters elected me into office, entrusting me with my first six-year term as a Senator of the Republic of the Philippines.
Less than 2 months later, I assumed office after swearing an oath before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, solemnly vowing to, among others, uphold and protect the Philippine Constitution, to fight for a free, independent and public-spirited Senate, and to stand for truth, justice and human rights.
You may not know this, but that oath of office, a copy of which was tweeted by the Supreme Court’s Public Information Office, was touted as being “personalized”, with some observing that it had a “human rights bias”, after noting that the usual oath of office does not specifically mention a vow to stand up for human rights.
The keen observers who noted that were absolutely right to take notice.
That I, quote-unquote, “personalized” my oath of office to give prominence to the human rights cause is no coincidence. It was on purpose, and it was with the strongest of convictions that I consciously brought it to prominence.
Why? Because I, along with the 14 million people who voted for me, am not blind. We could see the writing on the wall – populist sentiments rising; fear- and hate-mongering prevailing; half-truths, hyperbole, outright lies and fabrications are being peddled in the media and especially in social media by a professionally operated propaganda machinery that aimed to create a ruinous divide amongst our people by creating a false dichotomy: pitting peace and security on the one hand, versus democracy and human rights on the other. Surrender your rights and lives to a government led by an autocratic ruler, or die a violent death standing up against it.
I specifically included human rights in my oath of office because I knew who the incoming President was, and what he is capable of. Seven years prior, in 2009, I investigated him for his involvement in the operation of the so-called “Davao Death Squad” – the name given by the public to the murderous group composed of police officers and some other hired guns that wrought fear in the City of Davao, allegedly under the orders of then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo R. Duterte, who had no qualms admitting, even during the national Presidential campaign trail – in between making misogynistic remarks and crass jokes about wishing he had participated in raping a woman – that he has had people killed. He claimed it was his brand of justice – he claimed to be the Dirty Harry of the South. But all he really is, is a man who pretends to be a crime-solver, but is actually a lazy bureaucrat, whose failures as a prosecutor combined by his hubris gave him the delusion that it was his right to claim for himself the power over life and death, as judge, jury and executioner.
I knew him. And he knew me.
Therefore, my oath of office was my message. A message to him and all other officials who would serve as part of the then incoming new administration that, first, no one is above the Constitution, and the Philippine Constitution guarantees fundamental rights to its people, even and especially against abuses perpetrated by the government; and, second, our people and their rights will have a defender in me and others like me, who have made an indefatigable and life-long commitment to truth, justice, rule of law and human rights.
Less than two months later, in August 2016, I delivered a privilege speech condemning the spate of extrajudicial killings, and calling for an investigation into these Death Squad-type slayings.
Shortly thereafter, I received a reply to my message in the form of a barrage of misogynistic and slut-shaming attacks. The President himself, on live television, even told me to go hang myself. That was my warning…
I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I, as a woman, have no business criticizing a man for blatantly giving police officers a license to kill under the cover of a so-called “War on Drugs”, which targeted, not big-time drug lords, but the poor, the vulnerable and the defenceless. The deaths of the downtrodden was to serve as the surrogate for his lack of real accomplishments in eliminating the drug problem.
But I was not supposed to point that out. I was supposed to sit down and be cowered by the might of a man choking on his own machismo. I was supposed to be intimidated into silence. I was supposed to fear him.
But I failed at being a coward. I chose to stand up and deliver another privilege speech condemning the killings. I refused to yield.
Five months later, I landed in jail. And here I remain, 169 days later, still under detention.
Why? Is it because there is a single person in his right mind who believes that I am the biggest drug lord in the country? Even without any evidence to back up the fabricated lies of convicted felons, whose perjured testimonies against me were bought at the price of their very life and security under the custody of my persecutors?
I know why I am where I am today. Because I stood up for what is right, even when I knew that political power is not on my side. Even now, the other branches of our government are being corrupted and their independence being undermined, with threats to impeach the Ombudswoman, and an actual impeachment complaint being lodged against the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Yet, was I silenced?
Since being detained, I have released 133 handwritten dispatches, along with official Press Statements and commentaries that express my thoughts on key issues of the day. I have continued to discharge my mandate as a legislator by filing resolutions and bills on legislative measures – ranging from institutionalizing human rights education, fighting fake news, seeking investigation into questionable deals with a foreign government, seeking an inquiry into the plight of internally displaced persons, etc. – and even proposing interpellation questions on key legislative measures, including in relation to the extension of the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao.
No, I was not silenced, and I continue to stand for liberty, equality, truth, justice, and an accountable government that recognizes, respects, upholds and protects the human dignity and the inherent and inalienable human rights of their people.
I defy my persecutors simply by adhering to my commitments, in spite of all the obstacles they have placed in my way.
I perform my duty simply by not being cowered.
The word “simply” is, of course, misleading. Nothing is simple when one is facing the might of the whole government machinery – from an all-powerful President, to other government institutions that have virtually abdicated their power to keep abusive and arbitrary uses of power in check.
Everything is a battle. Even getting permission to allow pens for my use to be brought into the detention facility was once something we had to fight for.
But fight I must.
Fight we must.
We might not have the power of might on our side. But we have power of right.
In the words of Samuel Adams, “It does not take a majority to prevail… but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.”
I am committed to being that irate, tireless minority. And with all of you present here in this Caucus Conference and Workshop, I know I am not alone in setting brushfires of freedom in people’s minds.
On a more personal note, someone once noted that it is becoming increasingly more apparent these days that people don’t take women seriously, they just manifest it in different ways. The way I was attacked for my acts as a public servant made that plainly and painfully clear. Instead of being engaged on the merits in our respective positions, I was vilified and slut-shamed. I was even at the receiving end of the vilest and most shameless forms of black propaganda and fake news stories.
I had thought that my nation was more progressive than that; that our people are much more critical-thinking than that. But I have been made to see reality for what it is. Which is a blessing. Because the rose-tinted glasses have been knocked off, and we can now work on the reality of the problem without being blinded by our own wishful thinking.
Just as I refuse to be a cowed victim of political persecution, so, too, do I refuse to be a victim of my gender in a world that has yet to fully respect the equality of men and women. I also refuse to let the world believe the lies told against me. I proudly proclaim my innocence.
Therefore, as I send this message of solidarity with you, I send it, not just as a fellow advocate and warrior of liberty, equality, truth, justice, rule of law and human rights, but also as a human rights defender in peril, and as a woman who calls on every man and woman present here today, and who is within the reach of our voice and influence, to continue fighting against all forms of discrimination and persecution, especially against those who paint human rights and the rule of law as the problem.
This could very well be the fight of our lifetime.
Thank you for your time and attention.
 Leila M. de Lima is a Senator of the Republic of the Philippines, named as one of TIME’s Most Influential People in the world in 2017, and among Foreign Policy Journal’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2016. She is a former Secretary of the Department of Justice, and a former Chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, and currently a prisoner of conscience.