Rights group raps President Aquino: Killings go on
With the Aquino administration’s “lack of political will” to act on extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the international community to help get the Philippines moving in the right direction.
HRW has issued a 96-page report titled “No Justice Just Adds to the Pain,” which chronicles the Aquino administration’s lackluster performance in curtailing and responding to rights abuses in specific cases.
It said the failure to punish military men responsible for these crimes was spurring more such abuses from state forces, and noted that the military had simply issued denials despite official reports stating the fact of soldiers’ involvement.
HRW studied 10 cases of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, all of which had not progressed into prosecution. It conducted 80 interviews in 11 provinces for its report.
Apart from calling on the international community to push the Philippines to do more, HRW presented short- and long-term recommendations for President Aquino and various government institutions.
“There’s a difference between walking the walk and talking the talk,” Elaine Pearson, HRW deputy director for the Asia division, told the Inquirer yesterday in an interview.
“The Philippines can only bring an end to these horrific abuses if it is clear that anyone who orders or commits these will be jailed and their military careers will be over,” Pearson later said in a statement.
She recalled that during the presidential campaign, Mr. Aquino had promised to, among other acts, put an end to human rights violations that had been a blight on the record of his predecessor.
Jessica Evans, HRW researcher for the Asia division, cited as an example of government inaction the disappearance of Alfredo Bucal, who was accused by authorities of ferrying members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA) in his tricycle.
According to Evans, a witness saw Air Force personnel take Bucal and force him into a vehicle. But the witness who initially agreed to testify backed out after being threatened by soldiers.
Evans said police officers were of no help to Bucal’s family and told them to go to the Air Force, which denied having Bucal in custody.
She said other government agencies did not lift a finger to come to the aid of Bucal’s family. The Commission on Human Rights told them it could offer no assistance and directed them to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.
The family has taken the case to court and sought a writ of amparo, but the lack of a witness is hampering their efforts.
Evans also said the military had been targeting leftist activists and accusing them of belonging to the NPA.
HRW spoke with a former soldier who said military commanders had directed him to kill activists and to hide or burn their bodies.
He said he and other soldiers had been trained to carry out operations to make these look like acts of rebel groups.
‘Suspend Balikatan exercises’
Pearson said that when international agencies began issuing statements on the killings during the Arroyo administration, the number of deaths and disappearances dropped.
This time, HRW said, the United States, the Philippines’ most influential ally, should monitor the progress and effectiveness of police inquiries into military abuses, including its alleged participation in extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances.
If there is no progress, the US government should suspend the next bilateral Balikatan exercises, HRW said.
US Millennium Challenge Corp. should also include the Philippines’ failure to prosecute abuses as an indicator of its progress in the areas of civil liberties, political rights, accountability and the rule of law, HRW said.
It said future financial assistance to the Office of the Ombudsman should be conditioned on the prosecution of government officials for abuses.
Various US agencies should also check that police and military officers who enroll in US-funded programs have no involvement in serious rights abuses, HRW said.
Donors to the Philippines and its partners, including the European Union, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Japan and Australia should press the Philippine government to start investigating the involvement of military officials in killings and disappearances and prosecute those found responsible, HRW said.
They should also offer support for forensic analysis, witness protection, case preparation and tracing of fugitives, according to HRW. Nongovernment organizations that work with victims’ families should likewise be assisted so that they can follow up individual cases.
As well, HRW said, international allies could press the Philippine government to improve efforts to investigate and prosecute the military.
It said they should monitor the inquiries and offer to help protect witnesses and whistle-blowers.
President Aquino’s resolve
Pearson said that while some actions may take years to bring results, there are things the President could do immediately to address the rights issues, such as issuing specific orders.
She said rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances were just not a priority of the administration, which was why no military personnel had been held accountable.
“It’s a lack of political will,” Pearson said.
HRW said the President could demonstrate his resolve to end abuses by issuing an executive order directing the police and the National Bureau of Investigation to vigorously pursue crimes committed by military personnel, under pain of being subjected to disciplinary measures.
Stop labeling leftists
It said he should order the military to stop targeting civilians and labeling leftists as members of the NPA, and to desist from simply denying its involvement in the killings and disappearances.
It added that he should also let the military know that those who would testify on rights violations would be eligible for witness protection and other protective measures.
HRW said Mr. Aquino should also ask Congress to create a nationwide emergency assistance number for family members and witnesses to killings and disappearances, and invite the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the special rapporteur on human rights defenders to visit the Philippines.