Rene Saguisag: Rights defender, moral compass, fierce critic

Rene Saguisag: Human rights defender, moral compass, fierce critic

/ 05:17 PM April 24, 2024

MANILA, Philippines — In the Philippine political scene where politicians often jump from their party to the ruling bloc, loyalty is regarded as a noble trait. Loyalty to a party and a cause has been used to gauge whether a candidate is worthy of people’s votes, while turncoats are frowned upon.

But some were able to maintain their integrity without really banking on loyalty — some, who, despite changes in administration, were able to command respect because their viewpoints and criticisms have been rooted in pro-people advocacies.

Such is the case for Rene Saguisag, an ordinary boy from Quezon province who became a prominent lawyer and voice for the people by making the most of his education, experience, and upbringing. For a long time, Saguisag was a moral compass for many Filipinos, as his views allowed people to check whether they were standing on the right side of history.


But on Wednesday, that moral compass pointed to its true north as Saguisag took his last breath, leaving many people to wonder whether the Philippines will still see politicians of his caliber.


Human rights ally

According to his profile at the Senate, Saguisag finished his basic education at the Makati Elementary School in 1951, then a secondary course with Rizal High School in 1955 before studying for his Bachelor of Arts and law degree at the San Beda College.  He then acquired his Master of Laws degree at Harvard University in 1968.

While attending these prestigious schools, Saguisag had to work different jobs as a checker, laborer, construction site guard, and messenger from 1959 to 1962.

It might be due to this background that Saguisag became a staunch ally of human rights.  Over his political career, the former senator took the side of different administrations — many often not aligned with each other — as long as the government supported human rights causes.

Saguisag was one of the more prominent human rights lawyers when the state actors under the administration of former President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. were accused of committing rights abuses.

He joined the Free Legal Assistance Group, which handled different cases against law enforcers who were accused of killing peasants, activists, and journalists during the martial law era.  Saguisag and FLAG lawyers would eventually start the Movement of Attorneys for Brotherhood, Integrity, and Nationalism, Inc., which earned praise as several cases have led to landmark Supreme Court decisions.

After Marcos was ousted from power in 1986, he joined former President Corazon Aquino’s Cabinet as her spokesperson.  He eventually ran for the Senate, during which he crafted two important laws — Republic Act No. 6713, or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, and Republic Act No. 6770 which institutionalized the Office of the Ombudsman.


Unhesitant critic

The first Aquino administration was known to have close ties with the United States, but Saguisag was still one of the 12 senators who voted against the extension of the U.S. military bases treaty.

READ: ‘Fight not over’ 20 years after expulsion of US bases

Even though he has been identified with the Aquino administration, Saguisag did not hesitate to criticize the former president’s son, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, after the latter was elected president in 2010.

Saguisag was one of the petitioners who questioned the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a deal with the United States that was crafted and implemented during the second Aquino administration, because the agreement pushed through without Senate concurrence.

READ: Supreme Court upholds legality of Edca 

Still, Saguisag stood for several officials appointed by Noynoy Aquino when two House of Representatives lawmakers filed treason and sedition charges against the members of the peace panels involved in the Bangsamoro peace process.

READ: Saguisag hits solons’ ‘terrorism’ of peace negotiators

The former senator was also known for not supporting former President Joseph Estrada’s candidacy, but Estrada eventually tasked Saguisag with leading investigations on anomalies surrounding the preparations for the Philippine Centennial Anniversary celebration in 1998.

When Estrada was ousted from his seat following another public protest in January 2001, Saguisag was among the lawyers who questioned the process as the demonstrations caused a constitutional question on whether the change in administration was correct.

On Binay, Grace Poe

Another instance where Saguisag maintained his independence was when he questioned the decision made by former Vice President Jejomar Binay — his fellow martial law activist and human rights lawyer — for picking boxing great Manny Pacquiao as his first candidate for the Senate in the 2016 polls.

READ: Manny to KO House  

But Saguisag, along with former Senator Joker Arroyo, also rushed to the aid of Binay’s son, former Makati Mayor Junjun Binay, during Senate hearings on alleged anomalies in Makati City.

READ: Joker Arroyo, Rene Saguisag aid Mayor Jun-Jun Binay 

Saguisag also defended Senator Grace Poe from accusations that she is not a natural-born Filipino — allegations that popped up when she was running for president in 2016.

Poe was then running against Binay.

Poe, in a statement earlier, remembered Saguisag as a “staunch advocate for good governance and justice.”

“A legal luminary, he has devoted his time and brilliance to many, especially the disavantaged in society.  In our citizenship battle with the courts, Sen. Rene had stood with us, unconditionally lending his wit and wisdom, and for this, we will forever hold him dear,” she said.

Former Senate President Vicente Sotto III meanwhile said Saguisag’s death marks a great loss to the country, noting that his humility while being an elected official should be emulated.

Sotto also recalled talks about Saguisag being one of the more thrifty public officials given his penchant for bringing his own food and not resorting to lavish meals.

“A humble public servant and a true advocate of Justice. He used his legal background to provide free legal services to the masses (and that included myself then) and also authored legislation that help shaped our nation. He is also a well-respected professor and mentored law students, imparting to them his knowledge and experiences,” Sotto said.

“He always stayed in his desk even during breaks in session for two reasons, 1) he wanted to keep his seatmate, Boy Herrera, company. 2) he said he did not want to use the people’s money for his merienda,” he added.

Duterte and the left

Even when he was in his 70s, Saguisag did not stop working, making occasional appearances to criticize the human rights situation under former President Rodrigo Duterte.

In 2019, Saguisag lawyered for Senator Risa Hontiveros who was accused of committing sedition after she and other opposition figures were tagged in destabilization plots against the administration.

READ: Ex-senator Saguisag et al. question OSG role in case vs Duterte critics

Saguisag in 2020 then teamed up with, you guessed it, Jejomar Binay, to question the Anti-Terrorism Act before the Supreme Court.  He also criticized the government’s war against illegal drugs and its penchant for body counts, saying that killing drug suspects would not work in the country.

READ: Ex-VP Binay, CLCL lawyers join call for SC to junk Anti-Terror Law

Perhaps another proof that Saguisag was able to maintain his independence and integrity was the recognition he received even from left-leaning sectors despite being a key fixture in government.

The Makabayan bloc in the House also mourned Saguisag’s death.

“The Makabayan bloc in Congress extends its deepest condolences to the family, friends, and supporters of former Senator Rene Saguisag, a staunch advocate for human rights and democracy in the Philippines,” the bloc said.

“Former Senator Saguisag’s unwavering commitment to upholding justice and defending the rights of the Filipino people has left an indelible mark on our nation’s history. His legacy as a human rights lawyer and public servant will continue to inspire generations of Filipinos to fight for a more just and equitable society,” they added.

Accidental or destined

When Saguisag ran for the Senate in 1987, he promised to be there for just one term.  However, some pundits believed that he could have stayed longer through reelection or pursued higher office as Cory Aquino supposedly suggested.

In a 2017 interview aired through former presidential spokesperson Martin Andanar’s vlog, Saguisag said he was an accidental public servant — being egged by Aquino to join her government and then run for office.

“I had not planned to be in government or public life, even for a single moment.  Kaya lang nahilingan ako ni kandidata Cory, December 1985, na maging tagapagsalita niya […] like I said wala akong balak na pumasok sa gobyerno, nako nag-alboroto ang ale, ‘ikaw isa ka sa nag-convince sa akin na tumakbo, ngayong kailangan ko ang tulong mo iiwanan mo ko,” he said.

“Eh ‘di yes Ma’am.  And that was how I got to be an accidental public servant, serving a providential president,” he added.

Maybe Saguisag’s life was meant to teach Filipinos that people may find themselves in places they do not necessarily expect to be in, but the best attitude in those circumstances has always been to do well, to excel, and to do good in whatever position that may be.

Or maybe the real lesson here is that there are no accidents: it was not by chance that Saguisag was able to achieve what he achieved, as he countered the fangs of poverty by studying and pursuing his own field of endeavor.

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And the late senator did that without forgetting his goal in life — to promote human rights and to always side with the Filipinos.

TAGS: Rene Saguisag

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