Notes from the Field

From the Philippines: Impunity, Apathy, and Human Rights

July 9, 2008

Over the past year, crackdowns against political opponents in countries like Burma, Kenya, and Zimbabwe shocked the world. Yet, in some countries, dissidents face more subtle, but no less serious , political intimidation. Consider the following incidents, which took place between March and July of this year:

  • While being interviewed by a radio station, the head of a local human rights organization received a text message from a pro-military source threatening, “You are the next one to be eliminated”
  • Unidentified motorcycle-riding gunmen shot and killed a spokesman for a peasant organization; afterwards the mayor speculated military soldiers may have been involved;
  • Soldiers repeatedly questioned a villager for the location of her husband, while her neighbor reported overhearing them boast the husband would be “titirahin” (killed) as soon as they found him.

These incidents did not occur in an “outpost of tyranny,” but rather in the Philippines, Asia’s oldest democracy. Filipinos thought they had left extrajudicial killings (known locally as “EJKs”) and enforced disappearances behind after the People Power protests overthrew Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law in 1986. Human rights organizations here trace the current political violence to the Arroyo administration’s resolve to wipe out the communist National People’s Army (NPA) insurgency. The victims are overwhelmingly peasants, religious leaders, activists, and other political critics. The number of politically motivated attacks against activists increased drastically during 2005-2006, though overall estimates of the scale of the abuses vary: Karapatan, a leftist human rights NGO, claims over 903 EJKs and 193 disappearances since 2001, while the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines calculates around 150 EJKs and 60 disappearances. The police assert, however, that most of the victims on Karapatan’s list were killed for non-political reasons or by communists in internal purges. Political differences often drive differences in numbers; as noted by Human Rights Watch, only one name is common between two 2006 public lists, one by Karapatan and another by the Philippine Alliance for Human Rights Advocates.

Fortunately, by all counts, the number of cases has declined since early 2007. However, Amnesty International recently warned the killings could escalate again “if impunity continues to prevail, if military accountability is still not enough and proper judicial redress is left out.”

Both Filipino and international observers say they believe that rogue elements within the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) targeted leftist activists as part of their counterinsurgency campaign against the NPA. In some cases, they say, eyewitnesses recognized perpetrators as soldiers or saw their vehicles head towards local military bases. In others, they report that AFP officers had asked suspicious questions about the victim or included him on a hit list shortly before he was killed. Still, other reports show some disappeared persons later reappeared in police or military custody. In January 2007, a government commission, led by former Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo, reported that “there is certainly evidence pointing the finger of suspicion at some elements and personalities in the armed forces, in particular General Palparan, as responsible for an undetermined number of killings, by allowing, tolerating, and even encouraging the killings.” The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston, reported that the AFP was in a “state of denial” over its involvement in the crimes.

Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies have so far been unable to bring the perpetrators to justice. The administration established Task Force Usig (Investigate) to investigate and prosecute EJK and disappearances cases. However, activists allege it seems more interested in protecting the administration’s reputation by blaming the killings on the NPA and impugning the motives of administration critics. The Commission on Human Rights is respected, but lacks impact, since it can only investigate cases, not prosecute them. Meanwhile, witnesses often say they are afraid to testify on behalf of victims because the government’s underfunded witness protection program will not be able to protect them. As a result, the government has successfully prosecuted only a minimal number of suspects.

By contrast, the Supreme Court has shown initiative and innovation when it realized that the traditional legal writ of habeas corpus was insufficient in the face of widespread impunity and apathy. Under the leadership of Chief Justice Reynato Puno, the court issued the writs of amparo and habeas data, which require the government to take a proactive role in determining the fate of the victim and producing any information it might have on him. These new legal tools have already produced important victories, including the release of several activists from AFP custody. However, the high costs of litigation, difficulty of obtaining evidence, and problems in protecting witnesses, mean that most victims will be unable to obtain justice through civil lawsuits.

In addition to the human tragedy, human rights abuses in the Philippines exacerbate tensions between state security forces and the public. Activists and victims say they suspect the administration condones or encourages the attacks. Meanwhile, soldiers believe leftists blame them too quickly for any activist’s murder, but fail to condemn abuses committed by the NPA with equal vigor. Rather than working together to improve the Philippines, violence and recriminations prevent well-intentioned people on both sides from cooperating.

Through its Human Rights and Law Program, the Asia Foundation is relying on its strong relationships with both civil society and the government to prevent further abuses and obtain justice for the victims. In the absence of a strong top-down response, the Foundation is funding bottom-up Multi-Sectoral Quick Reaction Teams (MSQRTs), which designate local members of civil society, government, and the church to respond to EJKs or disappearances at the regional level. The Foundation has also organized seminars to train civil society lawyers and government prosecutors in forensic evidence and international human rights law. These activities are already helping to build local capacity to deal with human rights abuses. Perhaps even more importantly, these cooperative forums have led the AFP and PNP to sit side by side with Karapatan and other government critics and discuss their grievances.

One of the most worrying trends in the Philippines over the past decade is widespread impunity and apathy toward the law and legal institutions. Many believe the Philippines increasingly lacks the capacity or willpower to arrest, prosecute, and sentence lawbreakers and human rights violators. The fact that only a tiny handful of perpetrators have been successfully prosecuted for EJKs and disappearances reminds us that this attitude haunts the country’s proudest institutions.

Initiatives of the Supreme Court are encouraging, and recent actions of the Armed Forces demonstrate an increasing concern for human rights. The AFP’s new chief of staff, Lt. General Alexander Yano, voluntarily turned over a soldier suspected of murdering a labor leader in Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac Province, and Lieutenant General Pedro “Ike” Inserto, commander of the Armed Forces’ Central Command, feels that the younger generation of officers understands the need to protect human rights. So there are rays of hope but as Edita Burgos, mother of disappeared activist Jonas, recently testified before the U.N. Human Rights Council, “The reduction in the number of victims of killings is the result of public outcry and international outrage. Yet, the impunity continues.”

Dominic Nardi, Jr. is a joint-degree student from Georgetown Law Center and Johns Hopkins SAIS in the Southeast Asian Studies program. He is serving as an Intern in Law and Human Rights unit of The Asia Foundation’s Manila office.

View all posts by Dominc Nardi Jr.

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