It’s easy to apprehend the outburst of public sympathy for the three death convicts executed yesterday in China: Ramon Credo, 42; Sally Villanueva, 32; and Elizabeth Batain, 38. They were, like many of us, our relatives and our friends, overseas Filipino workers, forced by poverty to venture into foreign lands to support their families in the Philippines. Like the rest of the Filipino diaspora, they have been making both ends meet and enduring the loneliness of working in foreign lands, including in China with the formidable language barrier, to feed and support their loved ones in the country. And while lack of knowledge is not a defense generally for possession of large quantities of prohibited drugs anywhere, we cannot help but feel sympathy for those who were unwittingly used as drug mules just to earn the extra buck because modern day slave wages are simply not enough.
But while their deaths should indeed be a reason for national mourning, the fact remains that unless we learn from this latest painful experience, it will happen over and over again given the sheer number of our countrymen working as cheap laborers in foreign lands. What are these lessons?
First, while the Marcos policy to aggressively pursue the export of manpower as a tool of economic development has proven to be hugely successful, at least in terms of increasing our gross national product; the time has come for the nation to reevaluate the wisdom of this policy. The export of labor as an economic strategy was formulated at a time when the country’s economy was in shambles owing to the lack of business confidence under conditions of martial law. I submit that this is no longer the case. With a population of almost a hundred million, ours is now a market that can be self-sufficient, albeit the export market, specially the Asean common market, is still an attractive destination for our goods and services. The time, in other words, has come to provide jobs domestically so that Filipinos no longer have to endure slave like conditions in foreign lands. Of course, there are some of us who have been luckier and have been working as professionals and skilled workers enjoying very high living standards in developed economies. These individuals should stay where they are. What I am advocating is for Filipinos earning measly salaries even by Philippine standards; the domestic helpers in particular, should now be provided jobs in this country. If Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia have attracted more foreign investors compared to us, the time has come to ask ourselves why foreign investors are averse to investing in the Philippines. Here, the lack of predictability arising from a weak rule of law, lack of consistency in economic policies, and the illegal taking of alien property rights as in the case of NAIA Terminal 3, are some of the major reasons behind this aversion.
Two, the country should pursue the protection and promotion of fundamental human rights as the cornerstone of our foreign policy. Ultimately, these rights will provide the much-needed protection for our countrymen wherever they may be. Not too long ago, the Aquino administration decided to snub the Nobel awards rites honoring a Chinese activist purportedly because we wanted to please China in an effort to spare the three from the lethal injection. Yesterday proved that the decision to snub the Nobel was a fatal mistake. Not only did we abdicate our traditional role as a leading advocate for the protection and promotion of fundamental human rights, such as the freedom of expression; but as yesterday proved, also for naught.
Ultimately, what is at issue with these executions is not just Philippine-Chinese relations, but also the legality of the death penalty itself as being inconsistent with the right to life. What is so abhorrent with this latest experience is the fact that while there exists the possibility of mistake committed by Chinese courts, the imposition of the death penalty, on the other hand, is irrevocable. Furthermore, the views expressed by the Human Rights Committee on the right to life is that this right is absolute and that countries that are still imposing the death penalty should take steps to abolish the same.
Domestically, it is hence important for our legislators to resist the temptation to re-impose the death penalty. Here the arguments against it are just too many: the lack of empirical evidence to show that it has a deterrent effect and the fact that courts are more often than not, incompetent in their appreciation of law and evidence. While the Philippines under the past dispensation has signed the second optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which would mandate us never to re-impose the death penalty, this may not have been concurred in yet by the Senate. Hopefully, the tragedy that befell our countrymen in China will hasten this process of Senate concurrence.
Three, there is an imperative need to undertake major revamp of personnel and systems in our airports and in the Bureau of Immigration, as well as the Bureau of Customs. How kilos and kilos of heroine could pass through our airports is just deplorable. Better jail these mules in the Philippines for a lifetime rather than witness many more of them put to death in foreign countries for drug trafficking.
Finally, perhaps the time has come to create the post of legal aid officer in all of our diplomatic and consular missions abroad. While these lawyers cannot practice law in foreign jurisdictions, these lawyers could at least study what the local laws. Moreover, they could liaison with foreign lawyers and hence, provide better consular assistance to many of our migrant workers who have kept our economy afloat all these years. Surely, these workers have already earned the right to have this additional service even if it means granting the Department of Foreign Affairs additional budget for this purpose.