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Philippines fails on human rights performance, says group
Publication Date : 22-05-2012
Saying Philippine President Benigno Aquino III had failed to fulfill his promises, an international body yesterday called anew on him to relentlessly pursue military and police abusers of human rights so that their victims could finally get justice.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Philippine military and police had failed to take steps to punish those involved in torture, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, and warned that the Philippines "could expect quite a grilling” when the UN Human Rights Council reviews the country’s performance at a meeting in Geneva on May 29.
HRW called on the United Nations to direct the Philippines to honor its commitment to punish the abusers.
"President Aquino says the government is working overtime, and pleading for patience. But despite the promises for reform, he hasn’t delivered,” HRW deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson said in a press briefing.
"We want to see a president sending a message from the top. It means the cases are prioritised by the government and anyone obstructing these investigations will also be called to account. We simply haven’t seen that strong statement coming from the top,” Pearson added.
HRW said that of 10 documented cases of killings and disappearances in 2011 attributed to security forces during Aquino’s term, not one suspect had been successfully prosecuted.
In January, in its 2012 world report, the New York-based group also deplored the administration’s failure to curb abuses, and challenged the President to show his resolve by arresting retired Army Major General Jovito Palparan. The general, charged with kidnapping two student activists, remains at large.
Established in 1978, HRW is a worldwide organisation of human rights professionals, including lawyers, journalists and academics. It was established in 1978.
The council is a UN agency made up of 47 member-states. Its job is to protect human rights around the globe. In its review of members’ performance every four years, other nations scrutinise the member’s human rights record and propose recommendations.
Asked about the HRW claim, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said he had asked the Armed Forces of the Philippines to come up with a statement on the actions it had taken.
Colonel Domingo Tutaan Jr., head of the AFP’s Human Rights Office, said officials had briefed HRW executives, including Pearson, on what the military had done and that some of the cases were now in court.
He said the AFP was collaborating with the police and with all human rights groups “so we can bring everything to a just resolution.”
The military, he added, was not limiting its probe to the 10 cases but investigating all cases of abuse by soldiers.
Pearson said the Philippines got off quite lightly—with 17 recommendations—in the first review four years ago but she didn’t think it would have an easier time during the second review.
"I predict this time, in Geneva, there’s going to be quite a grilling of the Philippines about what progress has been made on human rights and where the challenges remain,” she said.
Pearson urged the UN to call on the Philippines to take concrete action to fulfill its human rights commitments, adding that the May 29 review would be the perfect opportunity to hold the administration to its word.
"UN member-states should see through the Philippine government’s rhetoric and question the lack of progress on accountability over the past four years,” she said in a statement.
She said the UN council should make specific, time-bound recommendations while the Philippine government should direct investigating bodies to vigorously pursue complaints against security forces.
Task forces not enough
Pearson said that while the Philippines had made some progress, such as passing the antitorture law, protecting overseas Filipino workers and reducing the number of extrajudicial killings, it could not use these as an excuse to disregard other serious human rights problems, including failure to go after rights violators.
She said the Aquino administration had made a lot of promises and even formed task forces but these had not produced stellar results.
"The Philippine government is relentless in its pursuit of creating human rights task forces. If only officials were just as relentless in pursuing the perpetrators of military abuses so that the victims might get justice,” Pearson said.
She said members of the military could undergo as much human rights training as the government wanted but that some of them still committed abuses not because they didn’t know what was wrong but because they could get away with it.
Hence, the need to hold them accountable.
Pearson said Aquino should prioritise cases of human rights abuses and take to task those obstructing investigations.
She said the usual response HRW had been getting from senior officials was that the government was concerned with corruption cases and would get to the human rights cases later.
"But the government has more than one hand. It can do these simultaneously,” Pearson said.
HRW said that since 2008, the government had successfully prosecuted only four cases of extrajudicial killings, all under the Arroyo administration.
It also said the military’s human rights office had the task of investigating abuses and defending the Armed Forces when soldiers were implicated in rights violations. These are contradictory functions that undermine the office’s credibility, it said.
Jose Manuel Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group said the impunity felt by abusers “is a sign that our criminal justice system is on the verge of collapse.”
Diokno brought up other problems plaguing the judiciary, resulting in wrongdoers not being held accountable.
For one, the appointment process is highly politicised, he said. Courts have also been notorious for delays of cases, with litigation lasting 15 to 20 years in some cases.
The vacancy in the judiciary is also high, with three out of 10 trial courts lacking a judge, he said.
"If you’re wondering why we have no accountability, why we have impunity, these are the structural reasons why we can’t enforce accountability,” Diokno said.
Suspects’ rights violated
Diokno proposed recommendations to improve the prosecution of cases and the observance of human rights.
He said there had been times that cases had not been successfully prosecuted because witnesses had passed away. Courts also need to monitor if convicted persons are actually serving their sentences.
Police investigators, on the other hand, need to rely less on confessions of suspects, which leads to a tendency to violate suspects’ rights, he said. Security forces also need to be taught that even communist and terrorists have rights as well. With reports from Dona Z. Pazzibugan and Christine O. Avendaño