Chito and I are almost a generation apart, but we have many similarities. We both went to UP Diliman and became student leaders while pursuing our law degrees. And we both pursued after graduation our advocacy for students’ rights and welfare which we separately started on the UP Campus.
I got to know Chito personally in the House of Representatives during the 8th Congress (1987 – 1992). It was my first term as Representative of the First District of Albay and he was a Representative of the Youth sector. Sectoral representation was then transitioning into the current party list system for three consecutive terms after the ratification of the 1987 Constitution which was drafted by a Constitutional Commission of which Chito was the youngest member.
When we both served at the House of Representatives during the 8th Congress, one of the first bills I filed was the Magna Carta of Students. Chito followed suit. Since his bill was basically the same as mine, our respective legislative offices worked together closely in pushing for the enactment of the proposed law. The student Magna Carta bill twice passed the House of Representatives on third and final reading but the Senate failed to pass the progressive measure.
If there is any tie that really binds Chito and me, it is human rights. It is an enduring tie that transcends government administrations, political persuasions, spatial borders, and temporal limitations. Thus, both of us continued our human rights advocacy not only after graduating from UP, but inside and outside the halls of Congress, in whatever circles we separately circulated.
We were one in opposing the reinstitution of death penalty and the reduction of the minimum age of criminal responsibility. We both campaigned for the passage of laws on the Anti-Torture, Anti-Enforced Disappearance, and the Reparation and Recognition for martial law human rights violations victims, all of which I was the principal author. While Chito was not a member of the Congress then, he was in full support of these measures and I have no doubt that had he been a legislator at the time, he would have authored all three bills as well.
In fact, Chito was a member of the Human Rights Violations Victims Claims Board under the reparation and recognition law as CHR Chair.
We all know that his term as CHR Chair was the most difficult in the history of the Commission. Bad-mouthing of the CHR and of Chito by President Duterte himself was unprecedented. Both the Commission and Chito were also attacked relentlessly by trolls and Duterte’s minions. Amid all these, Chito remained undaunted in protecting and promoting human rights.
It is no surprise that under the threat of being given a P1,000.00 annual budget, kindred spirits at the House of Representatives rallied behind Chito and the Commission on Human Rights to make sure that the CHR received the appropriations it deserves. I remember that at the height of the deliberations on the CHR’s budget that year, human rights advocates massed up in protest at the House of Representatives in a show of support for Chito who was then defending the CHR against rabid attempts to allot the ridiculous P1,000.00 annual budget during the plenary session. Eventually, the P1,000 a tear allocation was foiled.
One of the last times I was with Chito in person was during the public hearing of the Human Rights Defenders Protection bill in the previous 17th Congress, which measure he strongly endorsed. The bill was then approved on third and final reading in the House. This bill was not acted upon by the Senate and refiled bills have long been pending before the House Committee on Human Rights in the 18th Congress.
As principal author of the HRD Protection bill, I dedicate my personal efforts to have it enacted into law to all HRDs, but especially to Chito whom I had envisioned to play a central role in the first ever HRD Protection Committee – the mechanism I introduced in my original version of the bill.
As Honorary Chairperson of the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearance or FIND, I have witnessed firsthand how Chito had been in solidarity with the families of the disappeared as they search for truth and fight for justice. He joined FIND’s traditional commemorated activities, during which he stressed the importance of memorializing the victims of enforced disappearance. It is lamentable that too young, too soon and at a time when we need people like him most, we are now memorializing Chito.
Chito, who, despite Duterte’s vulgar vilification, remained uncowed and refused to shirk from championing human rights. Chito, who against all odds, was steadfast in upholding human dignity and rallying others to do so as well. Chito, who in the midst of adversities, indubitably proved to be the exemplar of human rights defenders.
To his bereaved wife, Atty. Mel Gascon and daughter, Ciarra Sophia, we assure you that human rights advocates and defenders like CHR Chair Chito Gascon do not die. They are aptly enshrined forever in the annals of history.