Human rights are more than legal concepts: they are the essence of man. They are what makes man human. That is why they are called human rights: deny them and you deny man's humanity.

Tote W. Diokno


Human rights have been defined and enumerated in five international documents and three national documents. The international documents are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nations adopted on December 10, 1948; its two implementing covenants: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which took effect in 1976; the Declaration and Action Programme on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order; and the Economic Rights and Duties of States, both of which the United Nations adopted in 1974.

The three national documents are the Malolos Constitution of 1898, the Philippine Constitution of 1935, and the Philippine Constitution of 1986. The late Senator Jose W. Diokno, the greatest defender and spokesman of human rights in the Philippines, has pointed out that the 1973 Constitution "has no place on the list," not only because of its doubtful parentage, but also because of its provisions inimical to human rights.(9)

The above seven documents enumerate more than twenty human rights. Senator Diokno explains "the basics" thus:

First. None of us asked to be born. And regardless of who our parents are and what they own, all of us are born equally naked and helpless, yet each with his own mind, his own will and his own talents. Because of these facts, all of us have an equal right to life, and share the same inherent human dignity. The right to life is more than the right to live: it is the right to live in a manner that befits our common human dignity and enables us to bring our particular talents to full flower. So each of us individually has three basic rights: the right to life, the right to dignity, and the right to develop ourselves. These are traditionally known as the rights of man.

Second: Even if we may not know who our parents are, we are never born without parents, and never live outside society, a society with its own peculiar culture, history and resources. So besides our rights as persons, we have rights as society, rights which belong to each of us individually but which we can exercise only collectively as a people. These rights are known as the rights of the people They are analogous to the rights of man, and like the latter, comprise three basic rights: to survive, to self-determination, and to develop as a people.

Third: Once a society reaches a certain degree of complexity, as almost all societies have, society can act through government. But government always remains only an agent of society; it never becomes society itself; it never becomes the people themselves. It is always and only an instrument of the people. . . .

All the rights of man and all the rights of the people come from those three basic principles.(10)

Cultural rights are inalienably part of human rights, but have not been high in the consciousness of our people, because of the more visible and dramatic transgressions of human rights that have scarred our recent history, like salvaging, unemployment, low wages, exploitation, and the suppression of dissent.

What then are cultural rights? Beneath the basic rights of man--the right to life the right to dignity, and the right to develop ourselves--lie our rights to our own culture.

The right to life is not only the right to be alive, but to live as one wishes, as one sees fit in order to bring his talents to full flower, as one was shaped by his culture. It is the right to live as an Ifugao, a Maranao, a Pampango, in the way these cultures consider it good to live.

The right to dignity is the right to the regard of one's fellow man, and therefore of one's cultural community. It is the right to live and work, to survive and produce, as a Bilaan farmer, as a Badjao fisherman, as an Ilongo weaver--rewarded with just wages and with the support and regard of his peers.

The right to develop ourselves assumes a development of what we are, of what our culture made us, within the context of our families, towns, and nation. It is the right to learn and grow as an Ilocano student, a Tausug doctor, a Bontoc social worker, each developing the particular cultural traits and gifts that make him Ilocano or Tausug or Bontoc and Filipino.

Cultural rights are thus inalienably part of the rights of man. They are also, therefore, part of the rights of a people to survival, to self-determination, and to development, because a people consists of humans brought together as members of a society, formed by a particular culture and history.

Before this nation came to be called the Philippines, it was composed of ethnic groups or tribes scattered throughout the islands--each a community or small society, each with a particular culture and cultural expressions. Thus when Pigafetta recounted how he and Magellan's cohort were greeted by a King with food, gifts, and ceremonies, he was speaking of a particular indigenous people with those customs and cultural traditions. And later, when the Spanish friars and civil authorities reported back to Spain on their dealings with Zambals, or Joloans, or Sugbuanons, they acknowledged that they were dealing with peoples whose customs showed them to differ from each other.

When, after 400 years, Spanish culture--and later, after 40 years of a new colonization, American culture--had been adapted into the native culture and thus indigenized, a certain uniformity or similarity could be discerned among the cultures of the conquered peoples--specifically the lowlanders, like the Tagalogs, Ilocanos, Pampangos, Ilongos, Cebuanos, Warays, etc. The peoples who remained unconquered, however--and the Spanish annals are filled with accounts of battles with the Moros, and encounters with headhunters--did not absorb this culture. Thus, when we speak of a Philippine folk culture as visible in such cultural expressions as the theater form called komedya, the dance called cariñosa, the house called bahay na bato, we are speaking only of the culture of Christianized Filipinos, and not of the culture of the Cordillera, or of most of Mindanao.

Eventually, history forged from this collection of ethnic groupings a political entity called the Philippines. As a result of the ways of the Spanish colonial government, later the American insular government, and still later the Philippine national government, the culture of the majority was taken as the basis for national policy and legislation, and the culture of the others--the so called cultural minorities, or tribal Filipinos-- was neglected. These cultures were not considered in the making of laws; these peoples were not usually given a voice in government; their needs were not often taken as part of the national concern.


Yet these peoples belong to the nation that we call the Philippines. Calling them "cultural minorities" shows that they are considered as not belonging to the predominant culture, and explains why their cultural rights have been often forgotten and trampled upon.

Let us examine some examples of violations of cultural rights. In the 70s, a government study determined that, in order to irrigate the entire Cagayan Valley area, and to develop 70,000 kilowatts of electric power, four dams should be built in the Chico and Pasiw Rivers in Kalinga and in Bontoc Province. One dam was to be built at Bontoc, to be called Chico I. Chico II was to be built at Sadanga, Bontoc; Chico III at Basao, Kalinga; and the largest, Chico IV, at Lubuangan, Kalinga.(11) From the economic point of view of human rights, they would enhance the capability of the residents of the Cagayan Valley to "develop as a people."

To build the four dams, however, would mean displacing 5000 Bontoc and Kalinga families: uprooting them from their homes, evicting them from what had been their homes for generations, and banishing them to the lowlands where they had never lived, where their work ways would not be effective, and where their mountain cultures would have no place. It would also mean destroying 1500 rice terraces that these people had built with much wisdom, community labor and, yes, pain.

The destruction of homes and rice fields, the transfer of workers and their families to unfamiliar workplaces would have been cruel physical displacement. But even more cruel would have been the cultural displacement. Building the Chico dams would have been, in effect, violating the rights of a people to self-determination within their culture. The act would have indicated that the government was acting for the economic rights of the people of the Cagayan River Valley and against the cultural (and economic) rights of the Bontoc and Kalinga people. It would have indicated that no importance was given to their burial grounds, or their reverence for their ancestors, or the trees and forests they believed were inhabited by their deities and spirits, or the history of therace written in the rice terraces, the houses, the communities.

The Chico dams would not have killed the affected Bontocs and Kalingas--they were left the right to stay alive somewhere else--but it would have killed their cultural context, and thus denied them their right to live as they wished, in dignity and development of their own determination and design.

These people, to whom no one needed to explain the articles of human rights, or the subtleties of cultural rights, were determined to fight to the death rather than give up their land. They gathered together, they organized and made peace pacts (bodong). Even their women fought back, and drove out the National Power Corporation team that had come to survey and drill. How?

The women removed their tapis (a kind of skirt) knowing that the lowland men would not touch them in public nor even look at them if they were naked. It is a cultural taboo. They advanced on as the engineers fled in sheer embarrassment. A helicopter had to be flown to pick up their abandoned equipment.(12)

It was a cultural weapon, which of course would not have prevailed upon the modern weapons of the army or the power of the government. Deaths resulted, like that of Macli-ing Dulag, but eventually the people, aided by friends of tribal Filipinos, prevailed, and the dams were not built.

The story of the Chico River dams may be called a success story, albeit one paid for with blood and pain. It is a rare one in the annals of tribal Filipinos, which is filled with violations of cultural rights, and thus of human rights--violations that have not usually found their way to the newspapers, or official government lists, or even to Amnesty International, because of a lack of recognition that cultural rights are human rights.

The building of the Kawasaki Sintering Plant in Cagayan de Oro sent workers of the area to mountain regions where the skills of their fishing culture were unusable. In the days when sugar was at a premium on the world market, ranches in Bukidnon were converted overnight into cane fields. Some of the ranches were formerly occupied by Manobo tribesman, who claimed them as ancestral domain, encouraged by Presidential Decree 410. They were told, however, that the decree was in abeyance. Did that mean that their rights to the land of their forefathers, and their rights to use the land as their culture determined, were in abeyance? The Manobos could not understand this, says Bishop Francisco Claver:

The Manobo do not understand in the same way that the Bontoc and the Kalinga do not understand, and some have already been killed because they cannot understand. But they are the Little People, the Manobo, the Bontoc, the Kalinga. They are expendable, their lack of understanding does not matter because the President [Marcus] knows best. Something is wrong somewhere, very wrong, and the rest of the country is silent.(13)


The minorities have, through our history, been deprived of ancestral lands by other Filipinos, by multinational corporations, and by the government itself. Obviously, this is a gross violation of cultural, property, and economic rights. Other violations, perhaps less well known or less obvious would include: exhibiting tribal Filipinos at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, as "primitive," "savage" people, not only degrading their human dignity, but treating them as subhuman and causing them to become ill.

Another instance was "turning the `discovery' of the Tasaday into an international media event' to boost the chances of Manuel Elizalde, Jr. for the 1971 senatorial elections."(14) More recently, the Tasaday have been involved in an investigation of their authenticity, which is obviously relative to accusations against Elizalde, and has resulted in killings among them. Although the investigation has obvious but unspoken political ends, the victims are the Tasaday, their dignity, their personhood--and quite probably the lands set aside for them in increasingly crowded South Cotabato.

Even the many komedyas or moro-moros written in the Philippines from the lath century to the 20th, although seemingly dealing only with love and war, are unfair to the Filipino Muslims, and transgress their right to a fair reading of their culture. Generally, they are portrayed as boastful and ferocious, worthy of victory in battle or of marrying Christian princes or princesses only if converted to Christianity. The pejorative use of the word "Moron" to signify someone irreligious, juramentado, etc., is part of this cultural violation.

Cultural discrimination too is the imposition of political, educational, health, and other social systems or regulations on the Agta, the Mangyan, the Higaonon, the T'boli, the Muslim without consulting them or their culture.

Cultural violations as well are: discrimination against tribal Filipinos in legislation, government appointments, educational and health benefits; their displacement due to infrastructure projects; the degradation of their resource base (e.g., the cutting down, for logging, of the forests in which they live and find livelihood); the commercialization of their cultural artifacts (e.g., the ridiculous and obscene carvings that entrepreneurs make native carvers produce for the Baguio tourist trade); and the desecration of their rites and belief systems (the Grand Canao Festival in Baguio, the proliferation of mock Ati-Atihan for tourist festivals and political campaigns, the corruption of the Moriones of Marinduque), etc.

Do we, along with government agencies and commercial enterprises, realize that these victims too are Filipinos?

There are 107 ethnic groups in the Philippines, the biggest of which are the Cebuano, Tagalog, Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Bicol, Waray, Pampango and Pangasinan peoples. They represent some 85 percent of the total population. The remaining 15 percent constitute the ethnic minorities, who, however, represent about 80 percent of the total number of ethnic groups in the country. The number of Muslims was estimated in 1981 to be between 3 and 5 million.(15)

The tribal Filipinos include groups most Filipinos have never heard or thought of, or considered as being fellow Filipinos: Mandaya, Mansaka, Dibabawon, Manguangan, Higaunon, Tagakaolo, Kalagan, Manobo, Remontado, Dumagat, Agta, Baluga, etc. Their problems are Filipino problems. Like the rest of us, they need social services, opportunities to develop, jobs and wages in order to survive, venues in which to express their arts, integration into the nation and its aspirations. The cultural majority and minority equally have a right to the protection of their cultures, but the minority have an underlying problem: how to preserve their own cultures while becoming one with the other, more dominant cultures; how, in effect, to make their contribution to the national culture.

The Philippine national culture has been defined by critic and literary historian Bienvenido Lumbera as "the dynamic aggregate of ideas, traditions and institutions embodying the values and aspirations of the people as these have been concretized by their struggle against colonial rule and neocolonial control."(16) Anthropologist and Constitutional Commissioner Ponciano Bennagen calls it "that which has been emerging from the crucible of the Filipino peoples' collective interaction and struggles against other national cultures." It is still emerging, since the Filipino people are still engaged in the struggle to free themselves from current foreign and new forces of national domination. It is still emerging as well from the different ethnic identities and cultures, because, as Bennagen explains:

An aspect of this struggle is the wreaking down of ethnolinguistic boundaries as the diverse groups find common cause in defending their sovereignty. The emergence of a national culture then constitutes a redefinition of cultural identities beyond, but still including, the ethnic identities. Put another way, in the collective struggles against other national forces of domination, we are becoming . . . both Bontoc and Filipino, both Higaunon and Filipino, both Maranao and Filipino, both Ilocano and Filipino, both Tausug and Filipino . . . (17)

A national culture, therefore, does not mean cultural conformity. The Philippine national culture is built of all cultures that are Filipino. All these cultures have a right to survive and prevail, and thus make their individual contributions to the national identity and dream. The rights of these cultures, minority and majority, to survival, to self-determination, and to development, are rights that the Constitution assumes, guarantees, and protects when it declares that Congress "shall give the highest priority to the enactment of measures that protect and enhance the right of all the 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" (Article XIII, I section 1).