Filipinos must be able to demand from their government their right to housing, education and health, or these socioeconomic rights would remain mere words on paper, according to retired Chief Justice Reynato Puno.
“We all know that a right that has no remedy is not a right at all,” said Puno.
Speaking at the general assembly of the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), Puno pointed out that these socioeconomic rights were enshrined in the Constitution. But they served no purpose if the people could not demand that they be enforced.
He said the traditional mind-set that these socioeconomic rights were nonenforceable—meaning they could not be demanded of the government—must be changed, and he implored the group of lawyers to take up the battle to instigate this change.
“Even while they are embedded in the Constitution, they are no better than paper rights because they [the people] cannot go to any government authority, they cannot go to the legislature, they cannot go to the executive, they cannot go to the Supreme Court and demand that their socioeconomic rights be implemented,” he said.
Puno said the traditional view of socioeconomic rights not being demandable, unlike civil and political rights, was a doctrine followed not just in the Philippines but in most democratic countries.
One manifestation of this was President Aquino’s veto of the Magna Carta of the Poor and the bill protecting the rights of internally displaced persons, he said.
The President rejected both bills essentially because socioeconomic rights are not demandable and because of a lack of funding to support the enforcement of these rights, he added.
The Supreme Court also adheres to such a mind-set, the retired magistrate noted, citing its dismissal of the petition questioning tuition hikes, which is premised on the right to education.
But Puno said there was a growing trend against this traditional understanding coming from the Constitutional Court of South Africa, the Supreme Court of India and United Nations agencies.
He cited in particular the case of Irene Grootboom, a South African housing activist who had sought relief from the high court and filed a case against the government after it failed to respond to applications for housing assistance, and after it demolished the shacks that Grootboom and her neighbors were occupying.
The high court of South Africa granted some of the relief that Grootboom had sought.
It ruled that African children were entitled to be provided shelter by the appropriate government agency, and that African parents were entitled to be accommodated in the shelter with their children. It also said the appropriate state agency was obliged to provide the children and their parents with such shelter until such time as the parents were able to shelter their own children.
The ruling sent “shock waves” through South Africa, and was later appealed to the constitutional court.
The constitutional court ruled that the issue raised was justiciable or could be entertained. It said poor people could go to court and ask that their socioeconomic rights, in this case their right to housing, be implemented by the appropriate government officials.
It also said that the fact that the enforcement of these rights would give rise to budgetary applications did not mean the case could not be entertained.
It further ruled that the state had to put in place a comprehensive and workable plan to meet its housing obligation.
With this landmark ruling, the Constitutional Court of South Africa eliminated a distinction between civil and political rights and socioeconomic rights with their respect to demandability from the state, Puno said.