The Philippines: The human-rights champion

AS a teenager during the martial-law years, Jose Manuel Diokno would go with his father—the late Sen. Pepe Diokno—to the military court in Camp Aguinaldo, where he was first exposed to handling human-rights cases. “Even then, I was already decided I would study law,” the now 53-year-old Diokno says.

To date, Diokno is the founding dean of the De La Salle University (DLSU) College of Law. After earning his bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at the University of the Philippines Diliman, Juris Doctor of Law with magna cum laude standing at the Northern Illinois University, more than 20 years of legal experience and even being included on the short list of nominees of Chief Justice in 2012—Diokno is now one of the most prominent human-rights lawyers in the Philippines.

It might have been expected of him to follow the same path as his father, but it was foremost his and his family’s experience during the martial-law years, which was notorious for the recorded number of human-rights violations, that led Diokno to his advocacy. “I never gave it a second thought that I would handle human-rights cases,” he says.

Diokno has handled and won numerous cases, including the more controversial ones. He was the counsel of NBN-ZTE whistle-blower Jun Lozada; was the team leader and private prosecutor in the impeachment of then-President Joseph Estrada; successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to issue its first writs of amparo for the Manalo brothers, who were allegedly abducted and tortured; and won the release of members of the “Tagaytay 5,” who were allegedly illegally detained.

Diokno, who is also the chairman of Free Legal Assistance Group—the Philippines’s oldest and largest group of human-rights lawyers organized by his father—explains how the cases he handles are mostly those of public interest. Among these are cases of illegal detention, torture and enforced disappearance, which he considers to be one of the most serious human-rights violations.

He also expounds how being a human-rights lawyer is different from the traditional law practice, which mostly involves commercial or business-related cases. Human-rights cases, on the other hand, are often handled pro bono, but for Diokno, these are exactly the cases that need paying attention to. “It’s much harder for those kinds of victim to get legal representation.”

“For as long as human-rights violations [continue] in the country, there is a constant need for human-rights lawyers,” he says. “Handling human-rights cases is like a specialization. Aside from the security risks, the law we use is different because the human-rights law comes not only from national law, but also from international law.”

Shaping the young

ALTHOUGH he has served in public office, such as when he became General Counsel of the Senate Blue-Ribbon Committee in 2001 and Special Counsel of the Development Bank of the Philippines in 2004, Diokno did not pursue a career in politics. Aside from being an introvert, he believes that he could contribute more as a lawyer, as a dean of DLSU and as an educator.

“If we want our legal system to be improved, then we have to start with the young law students and young lawyers because they are in the best position to do something better,” he says. “The young are full of idealism; they want change to happen.”

This is the reason that Diokno finds his being the founding dean of DLSU College of Law an exciting opportunity—he gets to shape the entire institution through his visions, and create something that is lasting and will make a difference.

Diokno believes that to be a good lawyer, one has to have not only a deep understanding of the law and the techniques, but also a proper ethical grounding. “It is not enough that you are a good technician as a lawyer. You also need proper values. Otherwise, you would end up becoming an instrument of fraud. You could create a lot of damage rather than helping the country.”

“The best value system for a lawyer is a belief in human rights because if you believe in human rights, then you will respect the dignity of every person—rich or poor,” he continues, referring to this belief as his driving goal, being the founding dean of the college, to impart in his students.

He clarifies, however, that they are not targeting to make human-rights lawyers out of all the law students of DLSU.

“We know that most of them will go into business law, politics, or international track, but for as long as they maintain that value of human rights, we are good with wherever they will go.”

The hope, he says, is that there will be more human-rights-oriented lawyers in the future—possibly this year, when DLSU is producing its first batch of bar examinations takers.

Under his term, Diokno also encourages international cooperation through having an exchange program with the University of Hong Kong, a short-term law course program with Meji University, and marshallship program for DLSU College of Law students at the Hague Conference Asia-Pacific Regional Office.

Ten years from now, Diokno believes he will still be in the legal profession. “I have been teaching for more than 10 years; it has become part of my everyday life, which I will never be able to leave,” says the dean, referring to his remaining years still advocating for human rights and passing this value on to the next generations of lawyers.