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Crying For Resolution: Extrajudicial Killings In The Philippines

April 8, 2009


Most Filipinos are taking a breather this week, reuniting with loved ones while reflecting of “the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of The Christ Jesus.”

So perhaps not many will notice the news reports about how the US-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch is calling attention to a disturbing deterioration of the situation in the Philippines under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

It coincides with the ongoing investigation of the national Commission on Human Rights about hundreds of extrajudicial killings in Davao City with its own mayor, lawyer Rodrigo Duterete, being tagged as allegedly being involved in the acts of the so-called Davao Death Squads – the motorcycle-riding vigilantes who supposedly ‘specialize’ in delivering “street justice” against drug dealers in the largest city in the Philippines in terms of land area.

The investigative online and print publication Newsbreak reports that a ‘business angle’ has even emerged in the operations od the DSavao Death Squads with ‘hits’ against target individuals avaiable for ‘contracting’ for as cheap as 5,000 pesos!!!

Human Rights Watch for its part actually has two reports on the Philippines both of which make disturbing readings.

Part of the report dated January 30, 2008 reads:

In response to growing international criticism, President Arroyo introduced a flurry of measures throughout 2007 to address the extrajudicial killings: fast-tracking cases through specially-designated courts, establishing a human-rights office within the Armed Forces, setting up a high-level commission of inquiry. But not only have these steps accomplished little—and it is not clear that they are aimed at anything more than window-dressing—they fail to address the core problem: Not a single member of the military has been prosecuted, let alone convicted, for any of these killings. President Arroyo has suggested that the killings are a result of misbehavior by rogue officials, of local political violence, or, as the military likes to insist, as a result of intra-insurgency purges. Yet Mr. Alston’s U.N. report and Human Rights Watch’s own findings show not only how shallow these explanations are, but also how the military, with the support of the Arroyo administration, has systematically distorted a counterinsurgency agenda and sought to apply it to peaceful government critics. The similarities to the Marcos era are remarkable, not only in the Philippine military’s expropriation of civilian power, but also in Washington’s response to it. Despite the surge of killings and the government’s refusal to bring members of the military to justice, the Philippine army continues to be one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid in Asia. It also sends a steady stream of officers to U.S. military-run human-rights training courses and to American service academies. Pentagon officials claim that they have consistently raised concerns about the extrajudicial killings, but there is no public evidence of this. It is unclear whether the U.S. military is vetting Philippine officers to ensure that none who are implicated in extrajudicial killings are participating in counter-terrorism programs or taking courses at West Point. The Department of Defense has not publicly expressed any concern that those implicated in killings are not even suspended from duty while being investigated, nor has there been a public discussion about the utility of trying to “professionalize” a military whose leaders deliberately distort the core concept of command responsibility and who refuse to end abuses. Most alarming, the U.S. military seems to accept that the extrajudicial killings are a necessary response to a national security crisis and the “war on terror.” Indeed, earlier this year, Navy Admiral William Fallon told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “With U.S. advice and training, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and civilian authorities have improved their ability to coordinate and sustain counterterrorism operations.” It is possible for the Pentagon to maintain this view in part because successive U.S. administrations—Democratic and Republican—have unstintingly supported post-Marcos Philippine governments, even as each of those has allowed the military to claw its way back into politics. Yet it is the military itself—not Islamist terrorists, not the New People’s Army—that regularly threatens the civilian government with coups and is now the greatest source of political instability.

As if this indictment were not enough, the second, more recent HRW dated April 6, 2008 tome goes on to assess the Philippine situation and adds very direct action points for the Arroyo regime:

2. Evaluating the Philippine government’s response to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances
The Philippines has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its first optional protocol2, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights3, and the Convention against Torture4 . However it has yet to sign and ratify the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, or the Optional Protocol on the Convention against Torture, which allows for the Committee to conduct visits to places of detention. In response to domestic and international criticism on failed prosecutions, the Philippine government has undertaken a series of specific measures to address extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. These initiatives may seem impressive “on paper”, but they have done very little to actually resolve the problem. Specific measures undertaken by the Philippine government include:
a) Task Force Usig: In August 2006, President Arroyo created a special police body, Task Force Usig, which she charged with solving 10 cases of killings of political activists or journalists within 10 weeks. During its 10-week mandate, the Task Force claimed that 21 cases were “solved” by filing cases in court against identified suspects, all of them members of communist insurgent groups. Only 12 of those suspects were actually in police custody. The police often call a case “solved” when they hand it over to prosecutors, although many such cases are subsequently dismissed in court, either for lack of evidence, witnesses or basic information necessary for prosecutors. So far, none of the 21 cases the Task Force Usig filed in court have led to a conviction.
b) The Melo Commission: In August 2006, President Arroyo appointed former Supreme Court Associate Justice Jose Melo to lead a commission to investigate extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances since 2001. The Commission issued a report of its conclusions in January 2007 stating there is evidence implicating “some elements and personalities in the armed forces… as responsible for an undetermined number of killings, by allowing, tolerating, and even encouraging the killings.” Relevant government agencies have so far largely ignored the commission’s recommendations. As of November 2007, the final Melo Commission report, submitted to President Arroyo more than two months ago, has not been made public.
c) Measures taken by the Supreme Court: The judiciary has been the most active player in trying to resolve these issues, but it has limited powers in enforcing members of the military to comply with its orders. In July 2007, the Supreme Court hosted a summit on extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, and in late September passed a resolution promulgating the rules on the writ of amparo, which is designed to stop the AFP from stalling a case by simply denying having a person in custody. The new writ went into effect on October 24, 2007, and its effect remains to be seen.
d) “Special” trial courts to give priority to political cases: In early March 2007, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Reynato Puno, issued Administrative Order 25-2007 designating 99 trial courts across the country as special tribunals to try cases of political killings, a designation which is apparently intended to give priority to such cases in the courts’ trial calendars. The order mandates continuous trials for such cases, and limits the duration of such trials to 60 days after their commencement, with judgment to be rendered within 30 days of the close of the trial. A spokesperson for the Presidential Human Rights Committee told Human Rights Watch in October 2007 that only a small fraction of relevant cases were in fact being tried in front of these special courts, while the vast majority were being handled by regular courts.
e) The creation of other human rights offices: In 2007, both the AFP and PNP established new human rights offices to deal with extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and other issues. President Arroyo also ordered the creation of the new Presidential Human Rights Committee, in addition to the existing Commission on Human Rights and the Ombudsman’s Office, which are largely tasked with similar functions. So far, these offices have done much to advertise the government’s rather cosmetic measures taken on the issue of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, but have done little to help bring perpetrators to justice.
3. Cooperation between the government and NGOs and human rights experts
The Philippine government officially invited United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions Philip Alston to visit the Philippines, which he did from February 12 to 21, 2007. Despite the invitation, Philippine Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez called the Special Rapporteur a “muchacho” (lowly servant) at the UN, and also accused him of having been “brainwashed” by leftists, while Philippine Defense Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane called him “blind, mute and deaf.” Alston later said in response to these statements, “…anyone reading between the lines will receive a far more disturbing message: Those government officials who must act decisively if the killings are to end, still refuse to accept that there is even a problem.” Alston noted that it was the responsibility of the president to persuade the military that its reputation will be enhanced not undermined by acknowledging the facts and take real steps to investigate the killings and “disappearances”.
4. Human Rights Watch’s research on the issue and recommendations
Human Rights Watch’s staff conducted research on extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the Philippines between September and November 2006. The research team interviewed more than 50 witnesses, family members, and close friends of victims as well as more than 50 government officials, lawmakers, academics, lawyers, diplomats, representatives of non-governmental agencies and civil society organizations, police, and members of the Philippine military.
Human Rights Watch solicited cases from a variety of interest groups, as well as some cases where no political affiliation was apparent. Human Rights Watch has also been in ongoing communication on the issue of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances with the Embassy of the Republic of the Philippines in Washington, D.C., the Philippine Mission to the United Nations and international organizations in Geneva.

The onus clearly is on the government of the day.

The passion and suffering of innocent Filipinos must be given a proper hearing ang redress in our courts of law if indeed we live in a society under the rule of law.

This is where the buck stops, at least until May 10, 2010.

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