On Tuesday, March 7, 216 members of the House of Representatives voted to pass the HB 4727, or the Death Penalty law which seeks to impose the death penalty for drug related offenses: “(1) importation of dangerous drugs; (2) sale, trading, administration, dispensation, delivery, distribution, and transportation of dangerous drugs; (3) maintenance of a den, dive, or resort where any dangerous drug is used or sold; (4) manufacture of dangerous drugs; and (5) possession of 10 grams or more of dangerous drugs.”
While this measure was being passed, about 80 Filipinos abroad (as of 2015) were on death row. They are afforded protection under RA 8042 which provides for legal assistance to migrant workers in distress. Since the passage of RA 8042, legal assistance and negotiation, cooperation with civil society groups, Filipino Communities abroad and concerned citizens back home have not only saved the lives of some on death row but have brought them back home to their families as well.
With the proposed reimposition of the death penalty, the country (and its leadership) once again sends mixed signals abroad, particularly to these host countries where capital punishment is still in place, with regard to our commitment to protect the lives of our migrant workers in distress.
According to Ellene Sana, executive director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy, it also makes “making the case” by concerned government agencies and civil society groups more difficult. If the Philippines carries its own death penalty law, this may further dilute the case to be made on behalf of our countrymen and women on death row abroad. These may even be viewed as “hypocritical” and weaken advocacies for OFW rights.
The Center for Migrant Advocacy further notes, “the Philippines is party to international treaties that are directly violated by the use of the death penalty; such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).”
Several experts and advocacy groups, on various Web sites, have already enumerated the difficult conditions migrant workers may face: “Language barriers and unfamiliarity with local customs, unfavorable working conditions, low pay, and sometimes resentment from locals for taking “their” jobs, all create a climate of fear and oppression.”
In addition, where these foreign nationals are on death row, there may be “inadequate legal defense representation, discrimination and arbitrariness, degrading prison conditions, and unfair trial processes.” Further, unless the case is publicized, there will not be much sympathy at the local level and may increase vulnerability unfair trials. All these take place with family and friend far away.
Layered with the already difficult situation that our migrant workers face abroad, the reimposition of the death penalty is another stumbling block to their protection by the State while abroad.
While 216 members of the House of Representatives have already made their vote, which has clear disadvantages to this crucial but often neglected sector, there still lies the hope that the Senate will see things differently, and consider the tenuous position of migrant workers in distress and the far reaching implications on their families back home. As with the current spate of extrajudicial killings and the war on drugs, theirs are the innocent lives that bear the brunt of these all too costly and all too human mistakes.
The debate and decision making on this legislative issue is valuable not because there are high stakes political gains (or losses) but because the decisions made define the institution they represent and ultimately, their personal contribution to the welfare of the Filipino people.
Maria Elissa Jayme Lao, DPA, is an assistant professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the Ateneo de Manila University.