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In the Philippines: The Tragedy of Human Rights

December 3, 2008

By Carolyn A. Mercado

Where is Jonas Burgos?  Where is Jaime Balao?  Who killed Rolando Antolihao and Danny Qualbar?

One might better ask, “Who are these four men?” and find an easier answer.

Jonas Burgos was the son of the late Philippine publisher-activist Joe Burgos, who dedicated his life to teaching farmers natural farming techniques. At noon on April 28, 2007, he was abducted by two unidentified men in a mall in Quezon City. The Burgos family has been searching for him since, but his whereabouts remain a mystery.

Jaime Balao was a researcher and trainer of the non-governmental organization Cordillera People’s Alliance. Before his disappearance on September 17, 2008, he and his family had reportedly been under regular surveillance by unidentified people in vehicles with heavily tinted windows.  Witnesses said he was forced into such a vehicle by five “military-looking” men dressed in civilian clothes at around 8:00 am while he was walking in front of the St. Therese Church and School in Lower Tomay, La Trinidad, Benguet.

Rolando Antolihao was a cluster coordinator of the party-list group Bayan Muna. He was shot dead in his house by two unidentified gunmen on November 10, 2008, in Kapalong town, Davao del Norte.  Four days later, Danny Qualbar, a Bayan Muna coordinator and a leader of the Compostela Farmers’ Association, was also shot dead by four unidentified armed men while on his way home in Compostela Valley, Davao del Norte.

Jonas, Jaime, Rolando, and Danny are among thousands of victims of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the Philippines from 1972, during the time of martial law, to the present, when democracy in the Philippines was said to be flourishing.

In a time of heightened and aggressive pursuit against suspected “terrorists” and the extension of the military offensive to quash the nationwide communist rebellion by 2010, extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances remain regular features of Philippine life.

Cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances that currently bedevil the country expose the frailties of hard-earned freedoms, the inadequacy of laws, and weaknesses of the criminal justice system.  Impunity is a problem that neither the executive branch nor the legislature, seem willing to address, exacerbated by powerful police and military forces who can coddle their peers who are suspected human of rights violations.

Surprisingly, one branch of government, the judiciary, has decided to exercise its rarely-used constitutional rule-making power to enact rules that will enhance the protection and enforcement of our human rights. In unsheathing this power, the Supreme Court enacted the Rule on the Writ of Amparo (Writ to Protect), which promised to offer an effective legal remedy for the victims and families of killings and disappearances.  The aggrieved party — any concerned citizen, organization, association or institution if there is no known member of the immediate family or relative of the aggrieved party ” can file for the issuance of the writ at no cost in any court throughout the country.  This applies both to those who have experienced violence, as well as those who are facing threats.  The Amparo writ provided new legal paradigms such as orders for temporary protection and sanctuaries for witnesses.  Moreover, an expeditious judicial process is assured, as a summary hearing must be held seven days after the writ is issued and the court must render a decision within 10 days after the hearing concludes.  Various legal obstructions, such as counterclaims or motions to dismiss or postpone the hearing, were also prohibited, further facilitating a speedy judicial process.

Not content with the Rule on the Writ of Amparo, the Supreme Court then issued the Rule on the Writ of Habeas Data, which is a remedy that protects a person’s right to informational privacy and can be availed of independently or in conjunction with the Writ of Amparo and Habeas Corpus. The Writ of Habeas Data is available to anyone whose “right to privacy in life, liberty, or security is violated or threatened by an unlawful act or omission” of public officials or private individuals or entities that gather, collect, or store data regarding a person, his family, home, and correspondence.  Anyone can use it to compel the release of information or to update, rectify, suppress, or destroy such data.

Less than a year after the issuance of these rules, 42 Writs of Amparo petitions have been filed in courts, 16 of which have been decided on the merits.  Out of the 16, five have been granted.  Four Writs of Habeas Data petitions have also been filed and one has been granted. These writs do not fully guarantee that impunity will be broken, but they are reminders to Filipinos, as enunciated in the 1988 landmark case of Aberca vs. Ver, that “certain basic rights and liberties are immutable and cannot be sacrificed to the transient needs or imperious demands of the ruling power.”  They are also a testimony that the Judiciary is an arena where people can bring their advocacies.  The Philippine experience in this respect is a lesson to other countries’ jurisdictions where systematic, deliberate, and widespread killings and disappearances occur.

Despite these positive developments, the challenges in the fight against impunity never seem to end.  Human rights lawyers have recently been attacked. On October 23, 2008, Attorney Remigio Saladero, a human rights lawyer, was abducted. As I write this piece,  Saladero is languishing in jail ironically being deprived of the right to due process. The Supreme Court has chastised the Department of Justice for “prostituting” their office to harass opponents of the President.  And human rights advocates fear they may be the next victims.

Unfortunately, efforts to come up with a synchronized approach to reverse a culture of impunity have failed because of differences in political frameworks and ideologies. Who should be made accountable for widespread human rights violations is a major point of contention; one human rights network contends that only the state can be liable for human rights violations, while other networks say non-state actors can also be made legally responsible for such violations.  Lawyers wonder among themselves whether international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and customary international law, are applicable in the country when there are no domestic statutes for their effective enforcement.

With the Philippines’ elections scheduled for May 2010, the issues of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances are in danger of fading from the public eye.  The tragedy of the thousands of victims that are missing or dead will endure unless those left behind remember the many Jonases, Jaimes, Rolandos, and Dannys that went before ” so that, as a people, Filipinos may begin to live in genuine justice, freedom, and democracy.

Carolyn Mercado is a Senior Program Officer at The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. She can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Law and Justice


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