Filipino human rights head who clashed with Duterte dies of COVID

Jose Luis Martin Gascon served as the chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, a constitutional body that probes rights abuses.

A lawyer and a graduate of the University of Cambridge in the UK, Gascon was the youngest member of the Constitutional Commission that drafted the Philippines' new constitution in 1987 [File: Noel Celis/AFP]

The chairman of the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR), who frequently clashed with President Rodrigo Duterte over the deadly war on drugs, has died after contracting the COVID-19 virus.

In a social media post on Saturday morning, Jose Luis Martin Gascon’s brother, Miguel, confirmed the news, writing in Tagalog, “Of all the battles you fought, we had to lose to COVID. Love you, big brother!”

The Philippine Daily Inquirer also quoted the Commission on Human Rights as saying that Gascon “passed away”.

“We have lost a human rights champion. He was not just a fellow public servant, he was also my good friend,” added Senator Risa Hontiveros.

A lawyer and a graduate of the University of Cambridge in the UK, he was the youngest member of the Constitutional Commission that drafted the Philippines’ new constitution in 1987 following the restoration of the country’s democracy.

Gascon was appointed in 2015 by then-President Benigno Aquino as chairman of the CHR, an independent constitutional office, whose task is to look into all human rights violations, as well as abuses of civil and political rights.

After Aquino’s term ended in 2016, Gascon continued to serve his post into the term of the incumbent, Duterte. His term, which was set to expire in May 2022, is protected by the constitution.

Because of his role in investigating cases of human rights violations, he was frequently a target of Duterte’s verbal attacks.

In 2017, when Gascon demanded an investigation into the series of killings of mostly male teenagers linked to the war on drugs, the president falsely accused him of being “gay” or a “paedophile”.

Gascon deflected the “name-calling” and the “hurtful language”, telling ABS-CBN News that he hopes the president “might choose to withdraw them in order to have a common civic space”.

He said his role at the CHR is “part of the checks and balance system of Philippine democracy”.

In 2018, when Duterte defended his war on drugs by declaring in his annual state of the nation address that, “Your concern is human rights, mine is human lives”, Gascon retorted that respecting human rights and endorsing crime can never be equated.


He pointed out that human rights defenders are only calling “to uphold the rule of law and constitutional guarantees” as the government conducts its anti-illegal drugs campaign, not impeding law enforcement.

Gascon supported the investigation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) into Duterte’s war on drugs that killed thousands of impoverished Filipinos, accused of using illegal drugs. Independent investigators, journalists and witnesses have said that many of the victims were unarmed, or were innocent of the crime.

On Thursday, human rights lawyers groups, activists and journalists mourned the death of Gascon.

Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, said he was “really shocked and sad” to learn of the news.

“Another human being gone while the clowns and leeches are mocking and toying on our rights,” he wrote on social media.

Ted Te, a human rights lawyer and former Supreme Court spokesman, also wrote on social media, “You were a giant for human rights. The forest is barer because of your fall, but the seeds that you planted will yield fruit.”

Source: Al Jazeera