No law to address persistent forced disappearances in Philippines denies the possibility of redress
On 3 March 2006, Joey Estriber was waiting for a lift home in Baler, Aurora, when four armed men suddenly dragged him into a nearby van and drove off. Days later, Rogelio Concepcion was also forcibly disappeared in San Ildefonso, Bulacan on March 6. According to witnesses, two men riding on a motorcycle grabbed him as he left his work at the Solid Development Corporation factory. Concepcion is a labour leader, while Estriber is a staff member of the Bataris Formation Center. The men, their families and colleagues had been followed by military personnel, and threatened and harassed prior to their abductions. There is little to suggest that serious criminal inquiries into their disappearances will follow: to date none of the possible perpetrators among the military are known to have been investigated. The two cases are already following the familiar pattern known to people throughout the Philippines, with little or no investigation and an absence of witnesses and accompanying evidence leading to "case closed" without result.
One reason for this failure is that there is no law prohibiting forced disappearance in the Philippines, despite the frequency of blatant abductions there. Without a law, relatives of men like Estriber and Concepcion have little hope for adequate and effective investigations followed by prosecutions and punishment of the perpetrators, as well as compensation. They have nowhere to turn. Although the proposed Act Defining and Penalizing the Crime of Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance (HB 1556) is pending before the parliament, it has been unnecessarily delayed. Like other laws that seek to address human rights and people's grievances, the legislature seems to give it negligible attention.
The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance is due to come into effect. The convention holds that there are absolutely no circumstances that justify forced disappearance, which it defines as
"The arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty committed by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law."
As the Philippines was a signatory to the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, presumably its government will seek to become a party to the new convention as soon as possible, at which time it will be bound by international law to enact a domestic law.
But there is no need to wait until then. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) urges the government of the Philippines to take the lead and criminalise forced disappearance without delay. Having recognised the principles contained in the 1992 declaration there should under any circumstances have been greater effort in seeing a law on disappearances introduced. In view of the fact that state agents and others acting on their behalf in the Philippines are known to routinely abduct and disappear persons there, there should also have been a far greater sense of urgency.
To see this happen, a far more vigorous public debate is desperately needed in the Philippines on the continued use of forced disappearance, and its significance for the society as a whole. Through such discussion, the brutal realities of enforced disappearance will become known and understood, not only in terms of their destructive effects on families and communities, but also their poisonous effects on the institutions and agencies for policing and security.
For Estriber and Concepcion the introduction of a law criminalising disappearances in the Philippines will come too late to have deterred the perpetrators of their abductions from carrying out the crimes. But for their families and colleagues, as well as those of other victims and the thousands of potential victims, it cannot come too soon.
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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 2006-03-20