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December 7, 2005
Ms Louise Arbour
High Commissioner for Human Rights
8-14 Avenue de la Paix
1211 Geneva 10
Fax: +41 22 917-9012
Open letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to mark International Human Rights Day 2005
Dear Ms. Arbour,
Re: The urgent need for effective laws against torture, witness protection, and end to the increasing occurrence of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines
On the occasion of the December 10 Human Rights Day, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) takes this opportunity to raise serious concerns regarding the human rights situation in the Philippines. Although there are many concerns we have regarding this topic, we choose here to restrict our focus to the urgent need for effective laws against torture, the current state of witness protection, and the increasing occurrence of extra-judicial killings, notably of human rights defenders.
It is the AHRC's strong belief that the enactment of an enabling law to punish the perpetrators of acts of torture in the Philippines is long overdue. The government's failure to enact a law has deprived its citizens of their right to be free from the most abhorrent and barbaric of acts - torture. It is also completely in complete disregard of the government's international obligations as a State Party to the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). By ratifying the Convention, the government is required to implement the provisions therein, including by enacting domestic legislation.
By failing to take action to ensure the passage of an anti-torture law, the members of the Philippine Senate and the House of Representatives have not protected their citizens against attacks and abuses by state agents. The provision of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, which prohibits torture, has been betrayed by the lack of an enabling law, in particular for torture victims seeking justice and redress. It constitutes a failure of the legislature when it cannot protect the very people it represents. There is therefore, an urgent need to have the law on torture enacted. This is a necessary precondition and achievable means of enabling the protection against torture in the country.
A review of the country's witness protection mechanism as also essential for the protection of human rights to the Philippines. It is becoming increasingly obvious that getting away with murder in the Philippines is made easy by the absence of any functioning witness protection scheme. The lack of witnesses also becomes a convenient excuse for investigators to say that they have done their jobs but have no further avenues for action.
Although provisions exist for witness protection in the Philippines, they are clearly not working. Despite the numerous reports of victims' families refusing to press complaints or witnesses going into hiding out of fear after the unrestrained killings of human rights defenders, peasant leaders, lawyers and others, there does not seem to be any serious effort by the authorities to address this issue.
While the government of the Philippines has given assurances at the highest levels that the perpetrators of extra-judicial killings will not go unpunished, without a proper scheme for witness protection such assurances are meaningless. The government should immediately review the management and handling of witness protection by the Department of Justice, with a view to greatly enhancing and expanding the scheme, so that security can be given immediately and for as long as necessary to those who need it. This requires a sense of urgency: the unrestrained killings occurring in the Philippines at present will be neither solved nor abated until the government recognises that immediate and effective witness protection is the missing element. Until witness protection is taken seriously, the prospects for protection of human rights, criminal justice and the rule of law in the Philippines remain dim.
This leads us to the final point, which regards the unrestrained killings themselves of activists in the Philippines. The AHRC is aware of twenty human rights defenders and political activists having been killed since January 2005 - and these are only the cases that have come to our attention. Common among all the victims is that they were persons that have been critical of the government. In response, government and army officials have labelled the victims as being communist sympathisers, as if to excuse themselves of responsibility or involvement. 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 apparent unwillingness of the current administration to do anything to address this trend is bitterly disappointing. 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.
To prevent further killings of activists and to avert a new social crisis in the country, the government must take immediate action regarding this matter. 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. Secondly, and as stated above, witness protection must be given to all persons attached to these cases. Thirdly, the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines must play an active role by coordinating its work with the National Bureau of Investigation, rather than waiting for other agencies to take the initiative, and by considering recommendations to indemnify the families of the dead. Fourthly, the government must condemn and demand the retraction of statements by the armed forces listing groups as 'communist sympathisers'. Until these measures are taken, little will be achieved in stemming this wave of extra-judicial killings.
The government of the Philippine's response to these and other grave issues concerning human rights in the country, has so far been characterised by inaction and a lack of proper direction. It is now time for the government to send a strong message to its own people and those abroad that issues such as witness protection, extra-judicial killings and torture will no longer be ignored. However, it can not do this only with words. The government must take genuine and effective measures to implement laws that will help prevent the blatant violations of human rights that are currently sweeping the country.
We trust that you will share in our concern for the human rights situation in the Philippines and act accordingly to pressure the government for change.
Link to the Philippines report: http://www.ahrchk.net/hrday2005/pdf/HRDay-Philippines.pdf
Link to AHRC's 2005 International Human Rights Day page: http://www.ahrchk.net/hrday2005/
Link to AHRC's Human Rights Day Message: http://www.ahrchk.net/hrday2005/05message.htm
Posted on 2005-12-07