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Unrestrained killings of activists in Philippines demand immediate government action

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

Unrestrained killings of activists in Philippines demand immediate government action

Since January 2005, at least 18 human rights and political activists have killed or disappeared in the Philippines. The latest reported attack was on Alden Ambida, a provincial coordinator of the opposition Bayan Muna party in Eastern Samar this April 11. He is now fighting for his life in hospital. In March, three other Bayan Muna leaders, namely attorneys Abelardo Ladera and Felidito Dacut, and Romeo Sanchez were killed. A supporter of the party, Iglesia Filipina Independiente priest William Tadena was also killed. No perpetrators have been arrested and prosecuted.

Common among all the victims is that they were persons critical of the government. In response, government and army officials have labelled the victims communist sympathisers, as if to excuse themselves of responsibility or involvement. Before Abelardo Ladera was killed in Tarlac, on January 22 the army's Northern Luzon Command briefed local officials that he was a contact for the insurgent New People's Army (NPA). His death was written off as a killing by communists, and not properly investigated. The same has followed in other cases. On April 4, Brigadier General Jose Angel Hondrado, the army civil relations chief, openly listed human rights, political, religious and media organisations that have allegedly been 'influenced or infiltrated' by communists.

The effect of this branding has been to excuse the authorities of responsibility in dealing with the cases: by implication, killing an alleged communist is not a crime in the Philippines. A further conclusion is that killing members of legitimate opposition parties or human rights activists is also permitted. The listing of these organisations as 'communist sympathisers' by the army is tantamount to an invitation to murder their members without fear of consequences. The army stands to gain most from labelling victims as communists where its personnel have had a hand in the killings. 

None of this is new to the Philippines. Under the Marcos regime, the police and armed forces developed very advanced methods of detaining, torturing, disappearing and killing human rights defenders and political opponents. It also used the method of labelling opponents as communist sympathisers as a means to open the way for unrestrained violence against them. The legacy of that era continues to poison Philippine society, despite many advances made through the struggles of political and social movements in the two decades since, as evidenced by these most recent attacks.

However, of bitter disappointment since the recent attacks is the apparent unwillingness of the current administration to do anything to address this trend. The combined effect of its inaction and unhelpful public statements is to suggest that the killing of political opponents and human rights activists is of no concern, and may even be beneficial to the country's internal security and social order. These are exactly the same premises upon which Marcos based his bloody governance.

The permitted targeting of particular persons or groups for threats and killings becomes all the more obvious when seen in relation to the recent killings of a number of journalists. On April 4, the same day as the army was denouncing certain groups, President Gloria Arroyo spoke highly of journalist victims as 'defenders of democracy' and promised that the perpetrators would be brought to justice. Arrests and inquiries have quickly followed in some cases, demonstrating that where the will exists to ensure that the police and other government agencies do their jobs, results can soon be seen. Why is it that the government has not taken similar urgent steps after these killings of its political opponents and human rights defenders? Despite outcry by many groups in the country, why has the president remained mute?

When the Philippines became a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1987 it signified the birth of a new era for the protection and promotion of human rights in the country. But the significance of this and other steps to uphold human rights must be measured in terms of implementation. Article 2 of the Covenant stipulates that where persons' rights are violated, they be afforded remedies. This means investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators, and compensating and rehabilitating victims. In his annual 2005 report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings spells out what this means where a pattern of killings occurs:

"In most situations, the isolated killing of individuals will constitute a simple crime and not give rise to any governmental responsibility. But once a pattern becomes clear in which the response of the Government is clearly inadequate, its responsibility under international human rights law becomes applicable. Through its inaction the Government confers a degree of impunity upon the killers."

From its experience throughout the region, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has repeatedly seen this pattern of killing and government inaction aimed at conferring impunity on the perpetrators. Most recently, in Thailand during 2003 government orders and language permitted the killing of at least 2500 alleged drug dealers without any fear of legal retribution for the perpetrators. In very few of those cases have arrests or any kind of effective police action followed. What has happened since is instructive for the people and government of the Philippines: reports of violence nationwide have escalated; mass killings and daily gross human rights violations have occurred in the south of the country. Having set in motion a cycle of arbitrary violence targeted against a part of society labelled 'drug dealers' the government of Thailand has lost control of what it started.

By reverting to old labelling tactics and failing to act on these recent killings the government of the Philippines too is playing an extremely dangerous game, and one that could easily escalate out of control within a short time. The question that stands now is what is to be done about it, in order to avert a new social crisis in the country?

First, and most obviously, full investigations and judicial inquiries must follow without delay, with a view to holding the perpetrators fully accountable for their crimes and making clear that this pattern of killings will not be allowed to continue. To do this, the government, and president in particular, should publicly voice concern over the killings and direct the concerned authorities to take the necessary action. Importantly, the Department of Justice should instruct the National Bureau of Investigation to take over these cases. The Bureau has the necessary expertise to deal with a string of killings of this nature, and is the most appropriate and relatively independent agency available for the task.

Secondly, witness protection must be given to all persons attached to these cases. It is obvious from the very cruel and calculated manner in which the killings have been carried out that the perpetrators will not hesitate to eliminate witnesses if they feel at risk. In at least one case the wife of the victim has complained that witnesses are refusing to come forward out of fear for their own lives. Therefore, the only possibility of effective enquiry is where the Department of Justice recommends and ensures that witness protection is given to all these persons.

Thirdly, the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines can play an active role. It should already have been alarmed by these killings, and begun impartial investigations into all of the cases, in accordance with its mandate under the 1987 Constitution. So what are its investigators doing now? It can coordinate its work with the National Bureau of Investigation, rather than waiting for other agencies to take the initiative. It should also consider making recommendations to indemnify the families of the dead.

Fourthly, the government must condemn and demand the retraction of the statements by the armed forces listing groups as 'communist sympathisers'. This method of intimidation and control stinks of Marcos-era methods that are totally contrary to the popular sympathies for human rights and democracy which run throughout the country today. At a time that the Philippines has rightly expressed concern about the situation of human rights in its neighbours, notably Burma, it is essential that it stand firmly—and not just rhetorically—upon those principles at home. The president should take a lead role in rejecting this approach of targeting political opponents and human rights defenders, which undermines the rule of law and is contrary to the country's international obligations. 

The government of the Philippines is now faced with a very serious new threat to the protection of human rights and democracy in the country. So far its response has been characterised by inaction and a lack of proper direction over the army and other authorities, which acting in their own interests have made the situation worse. The government must now counteract these steps in the wrong direction and serve the Philippine people by demonstrating that it has the will and means to prevent the killings of human rights defenders and political opponents. Let it send a strong message to its own people and those abroad that these killings will not be tolerated.

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About AHRC The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

Posted on 2005-04-13



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