The year 2009 does not augur well for the economy and the human rights situation in the country. The war to eradicate armed dissidents rages on against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the New People’s Army (NPA). The impact of the global economic downturn results to labor displacement and constricts opportunities for employment at all levels. The controversies brought by the maneuver on Charter Change spawn a lot of speculations on the uncertainty of the upcoming elections and the prospect of more violence. The government mechanisms in place to address human rights issues are struggling for cooperation from the civil society which has long mistrusted the government for sincerity and commitment while the progressive movement and the work for human rights have remained fragmented. These events pose more challenges than what have been accomplished in the advancement of human rights.
Human rights defenders as well as humanitarian aid workers are either caught up in the crossfire, targeted for assassination or kidnapping aside from being negatively perceived in pubic as abetting the acts of terrorism.
The intensified war on terrorism of the government against the NPA and the MILF has created a complex environment whereby the difficulty in identifying and responding to a human right violation has become an issue. The acts of terrorism and rebellion are blurred. So when a suspected terrorist or an Abu Sayyaf member is subjected to torture, detention and trial, only a few come to his/her defense – even by virtue of the right to due process – lest one will be suspected of abetting the crime of terrorism. Even if one comes to aid, the public perception is another.
On the other hand, human rights defenders, peace and humanitarian workers are being kidnapped in Jolo and Basilan and other places in Mindanao by the alleged Abu Sayyaf group. The string of kidnappings which started with the 3 ICRC personnel in Jolo: Swiss Andreas Notter, Italian Eugenio Vagni and Filipino Mary Jean Lacaba since January 15, provides a scenario wherein nobody is spared from kidnapping anymore where ransom can range from payment for just the “panigarilyo” of the kidnappers, “board and lodging” of victim to millions of pesos. The kidnapping cases of teachers and midwife, a Sri Lankan member of the Non-Violence Peace Corps in Basilan, businessman and his daughter in Cotabato and recently teachers in Sibuguay province demonstrate this.
Human rights and peace organizations should put prime importance on monitoring and documentation since effective advocacy work depends largely on the accuracy and reliability of the information.
Arguably, the year 2008 tallies the highest number of human rights violations due to the rampage after the failed MOA-AD between the GRP and MILF and the continuing counter-insurgency operation against the NPA which coincidently jibes with the lowest rating of the Arroyo administration in its 8-year of governance. The government is bent on pursuing the MILF commanders who are blamed on the rampage, and fast-tracking its operation for the demolition of the communist movement in the country by 2010. This entails massive militarization in any part of the country where the insurgents are. Besides, the prospect for the resumption of peace talks between the two parties are swept aside by the preoccupation on the 2010 national elections aside from the wariness of the parties to renegotiate. If the military operation fails on both, to cover up excuses and legitimize further operations, the policy of the government will certainly change permanently to regard the MILF and NPA as terrorists or common criminals and thus relegated to the police concerns.
The year 2009 is critical for HR advocacy, especially on monitoring and documentation work, as the military counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency actions escalate to meet the deadline. Although there are a lot of HR organizations which do the work, reports on statistics and cases are contrasting. There should be a venue wherein all involved in the documentation work could compare notes on data and information. A collated report on human rights violations in the country will dispel all doubts of reports as propaganda materials to overthrow the government unlike when there is none where the latter could easily challenge any report as biased or unconfirmed. Moreover, documentation work should also cover the increasing reported cases on election-related violence or election-related human rights violations and the impact of global economic crisis that resulted to cases of displacement.
The work should not be left alone in the hands of the Commission on Human Rights which is hampered with limited resources and some restrictive policies. The CHR has recently improved its handling of cases by introducing its Executive Information System (EIS), a database management system designed to record, secure, generate reports and update human rights cases through a centralized operation. But this does not fill the gap in the lack of workers and volunteers who are willing to do monitoring and documentation work. The CHR should further extend its arm to war-prone areas and should be able to immediately respond to reports. There is a need to build local hr monitors and networks that could expedite the relay of data and information from the field to the processing centers.
Bangsamoro civil society are also challenged to take on documentation work to address the gap on HRVs committed against the Bangsamoro people especially in the areas not safe to other human rights workers due to the threat of kidnappings. If properly documented, many agree that there are more human rights violations against the Bangsamoro people compared to all other human rights violation cases in the country.
Documentation work in a climate of impunity is very important based on TFDP experience during the martial law years. The TFDP recorded some 10,000 cases of human rights violation that can be accessed in its museum of courage and resistance. The preserved data had been used to indict the Marcoses in the Hawaiian court. This experience has taught us a valuable lesson in securing reports on human rights violation cases for their possible usage in the future enabling political environment or until the victim has finally find the courage to seek justice.
The work to curb impunity must intensify especially against extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances.
After the Alston report accusing the Philippine government of acquiescence and inaction on the cases of extra judicial executions (EJE) and enforced disappearances (ED), the Melo Commission and the SC-initiated National Consultation delved on these cases. the Supreme Court came up with 2 landmark legal instruments: the “writ of amparo” and “writ of habeas data” as a recourse to in the prevention and prosecution of the perpetrators. However, these instruments have also been used by the military to penetrate the privacy of one’s abode , office or compound to search for their alleged missing members.
The administration formed the Task Force Usig tasked to investigate unexplained killings of political activists and journalists. But most of the suspects it has probed involved the cadres of Communist party of the Philippines. Then the creation of Task Force 211 against political violence and extra-judicial executions chaired by Justice Undersecretary Ricardo Blancaflor. TF 211 so far has 37 cases on trial and 6 convictions involving the murder of media personalities. But the phenomenon of EJE and ED persists even with these remedies and mechanisms in place. Most of the convictions only involved enlisted personnels in the military and never went beyond command responsibility. General Jovencio Palparan, Jr. held responsible for the abduction of the Manalo brothers Raymond and Reynaldo who escape after a year and a half of captivity, is never brought to justice. The Supreme Court granted their petition for the writ of amparo but in spite of the overwhelming evidence of torture, EJK and ED against Palparan, not a single prosecution arm of the government file a case against him. According to the Melo Commission “there is certainly evidence pointing the finger of suspicion at… General Palparan as responsible for an undetermined number of killings”. However, upon retirement, he was offered a position in the government in spite of the numerous pending cases against him.
The number of cases of ELK and EDs of political figures as reported by various HR organizations is actually just a tip of the iceberg if all related cases have been documented. Civilians alleged as drug traffickers and petty criminals are added among the victims. In Davao city alone TFDP documented some 200 cases attributed to the Davao Death Squad in 2007 and since January this year “there were about 33 unresolved killings” already. In response to, a dialogue was initiated by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) with the civil society groups and concerned government agencies. To form an independent body to conduct an investigation of the cases, to maximize the witness protection program to encourage more witnesses to come out and to strengthen the forensic and investigative capability of all law enforcement agencies stood out among the recommendations. Assurance of these is not enough, there must be an atmosphere of trust between the government agencies and the victims and their relatives. The lack of witnesses and the absence of evidence thus remains a problem according to CHR-XI Director Alberto Sipaco.
The CHR is also asked to investigate summary executions in Metro manila. There were already 10 salvaged victims reported in Las Pinas, Manila and Quezon cities. “Aside from marks of strangulation on their necks, the victims also bore stab and bullet wounds. Their hands and feet were tied while strips of packing tape were wrapped around their face”. These victims have indications on their bodies that they were tortured before killed. What is sad to note is that these killings are usually attributed to gang wars or to vigilante group.
EJEs before were attributed by the military to legitimate encounters which is strongly denied by the Left but now to election-related violence. So as the elections come close, the cases of EJEs may grow in number. And these type of killing is often attributed to those who want to stay in power than those who want to be in power.
Civil society organization should adapt the human rights framework in their approaches to development and dealing with the local government and for the latter to face the same challenge.
We are often discouraged and daunted by the fact that most HR bills are stalled in Congress and the lack of human rights understanding among the military and our government leaders and agencies. The anti-torture bill, for example, is still pending for enactment and possibly again derailed by the upcoming elections. In spite of its prevalence, why is torture fails to be considered as a national human rights issue? Because it is often overshadowed by election matters during the height of its deliberation in Congress, never a priority of the Arroyo administration and there are no consistent human rights advocates among the legislators and enough support from the local governments and community. This is also true with other human rights bills against discrimination, disappearance and extra judicial executions – all pending in Congress.
Corollary to the effort at the national level which usually takes more time and resources, the local governments may be engaged in the promotion and protection of human rights. TFDP in the past had formed “torture free zones”. This is a clue that in the absence of a national law on certain human rights issues, a local mechanism could be a substitute. CSOs, in a particular locus of operation be it at the regional and provincial level, are challenged to come up with a “local human rights agenda” to lobby for mechanism and possible law enactment at the provincial, municipal or even barangay levels. The activation of the Barangay Human Rights Action Centers (BHRAC) and Human Rights committee as quasi-bodies and the formation of Mulit-sectoral Quick Reaction Teams (MSQRTs) are fertile grounds to discuss engagement on particular human rights to lobby. Thus, in the absence of a clear policy of the national government on the safety nets of the displaced workers, food security and relief and rehabilitation of victims of human rights violations especially of massive displacement due to internal conflicts, the local government should arrive at measures to address these. In the absence of national laws, there is already a mandate in the Constitution and in the international declarations and covenants of which our government has signed.
 PDI, Cops to ask CHR…, Feb. 16, 2009, p. A16,
– dani conejar