José Luis Martín C Gascón used a walking stick to carry out his duties as the Philippines’ “courageous” human rights lawyer, a result of living with with diabetes and the wound it left on his right foot.
But in the words of his brother, Miguel Gascón, who confirmed his death on Facebook earlier this month, “of all the battles you fought, we had to lose you to Covid-19”.
The Filipino lawyer had chaired the commission on human rights (CHR), an independent constitutional body, since 2015, and was famous for his public confrontations with the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte – particularly over his “war on drugs”, which activists say has involved the unlawful killing of drug users and traffickers.
In the aftermath of his death on 9 October, at the age of 57, tributes have poured in for Gascón, known as Chito, with activists and scholars at home and abroad hailing “a true hero”, “a tireless champion” and “a giant for human rights”.
“Neither diabetes nor Covid-19 stopped him from serving the victims of human rights violations … under the most extreme pressure of a president who detests human rights to its core,” said Fides Lim, wife of the jailed peace consultant Vicente Ladlad, Filipino news website Bulatlat reported.
Lim, a spokesperson for Kapatid, a group representing political prisoners’ relatives, added: “The country lost a dedicated public servant who never cowered in fear in asserting people’s rights and civil liberties despite every curse and insult of a tyrannical president.”
Gascón was a “courageous human rights defender”, said human rights NGO Karapatan. “Chito’s tenure as chairperson came at a crucial time of massive challenges and worsening attacks on human rights in the Philippines,” the group said.
“He and the commission faced various threats for their work in fulfilling their mandate, especially in openly denouncing the Duterte administration’s sham and bloody drug war.”
Gascón showed “dignity, strength and courage”, despite relentless personal attacks on him and the commission he led, said Jacqueline de Guia, a CHR spokesperson.
“Never bitter, never fearful, he was equally unrelenting in ‘pounding the rock of impunity’, as he’d say. Through the hardest days, Chito provided stable leadership. He was an intellectual giant who showed great eloquence in his speech. He cared when no one did and he dared when others were fearful.”
Gascón was appointed to chair the CHR by the late former president, Benigno Aquino III, who was succeeded by Duterte in 2016.
He studied philosophy and then law at the University of the Philippines, before taking a master’s degree in international law at the University of Cambridge.
The 1986 people’s revolt, known as the February revolution, which forced an end to the 20-year rule of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, provided an opportunity for Gascón. He was the youngest member appointed to the body in charge of drafting a new constitution.
He later served as the youngest representative in the eighth Philippine’s congress during President Corazon Aquino’s term, where he most notably championed legislation to protect children.
In 2014, a year before becoming the CHR chair, he was appointed to the human rights victims’ claims board, set up for reparation programmes for the victims of martial law in the 1970s and 1980s.
Carlos H Conde, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, tells the Guardian that Gascón came to the CHR at a particularly important time for the Philippines.
“A few months after Gascón’s appointment by then President Benigno Aquino III in June 2015, Rodrigo Duterte, then a mayor of Davao City in the south, announced that he would run for president and that he would embark on a violent campaign against crime, just as he did in Davao City, in which hundreds had been killed by his Davao death squad since the 90s,” he says.
The Filipina journalist Maria Ressa’s recent Nobel peace prize win highlighted the situation of human rights in the Philippines, Conde adds. “The human rights situation in the Philippines right now continues to be dire. The killings in the ‘drug war’ are continuing, even if the ICC [international criminal court] has initiated an investigation, and regardless of the UN’s efforts to help the Philippines improve its capacities to address rights issues.”
Gascón clashed with Duterte many times, including in 2017 when the president called him “gay” and a “paedophile”. The president threatened to abolish the CHR the same year. Gascón “endured Duterte’s threats and ridicule as the CHR monitored the government’s bloody war on drugs”, reported news website Inquirer.
After Gascón’s death, a presidential palace spokesperson expressed condolences as did other government and military figures. Leni Robredo, the country’s vice-president, described Gascón as “a constant light in these dark times”.
Theodore Te, ex-spokesperson for the supreme court, tweeted that Gascón fought the good fight. “You stood your ground and held fast. You took the fight to the enemy. You were a giant for human rights. The forest is barer because of your fall, but the seeds that you planted will yield fruit,” he said.
Michael McFaul from Stanford University, where Gascón attended a fellowship programme in 2005, called him “a true hero for human rights”. The Asia Pacific Forum called him “a tireless champion for human rights in the Philippines”.
In a speech last year Gascón emphasised collective remembrance against authoritarian leaders engaging in myth-making.
“From their positions of power, they attempt to retell history with lies – denying culpability for atrocities against humanity and their abuse of authority,” he said.
“Remembering serves as society’s bulwark against tyranny and the evils of violence, discrimination, social exclusion that come with it. It fosters an active citizenship that constantly affirms democratic values.”