Extrajudicial killings in the country will not stop unless Malacañang and the Armed Forces acknowledge the reality of rights violations and reevaluate their counterinsurgency strategy, the UN special rapporteur warned on Wednesday.
Philip Alston, the independent UN investigator, ended his 10-day mission with harsh words for the military, likening the institution to an alcoholic in a state of denial.
Alston, at a press briefing, said there is no evidence directly linking President Arroyo to the killings. He also praised Mrs. Arroyo for taking some steps to resolve the issue of killings.
But he slammed a culture of impunity stemming from the “rampant problem of witness vulnerability.”
Alston urged Mrs. Arroyo to order a halt to the murder of militants and show proof that these will not be tolerated.
He asked Malacañang to immediately release the Melo report, saying there was no justification for keeping it secret.
He also called on the AFP to be serious and methodical with investigations instead of using these to protect institutions and individuals charged with the killings.
“When the Chief of the AFP contends himself with telephoning Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan three times in order to satisfy himself that the persistent and extensive allegations against the general were entirely unfounded, rather than launching a thorough internal investigation, it is clear that there is still a very long way to go,” Alston said.
A significant number of the killings have been “convincingly attributed” to the military, Alston stressed.
“The President needs to persuade the military that its reputation and effectiveness will be considerably enhanced, rather than undermined, by acknowledging the facts and taking genuine steps to investigate,” he noted.
The UN special rapporteur quoted experts estimating that eight of ten cases of killings do not make it to the trial stage, because witnesses are “systematically intimidated and harassed.”
Addressing the government’s complaint about uncooperative witnesses, Alston said: “The present message is that if you want to preserve your life expectancy, don’t act as a witness in a criminal prosecution for killing.”
“In a relatively poor society, in which there is heavy dependence on community and very limited real geographical mobility, witnesses are uniquely vulnerable when the forces accused of killings are all too often those, or are linked to those, who are charged with ensuring their security,” Alston said.
He called the government’s Witness Protection Program (WPP) “impressive—on paper,” saying its practice is deeply flawed and effective only in a very limited number of cases. Later on, other people closely involved with the investigation said the successful WPP cases mostly comprised media slay witnesses.
Not just propaganda
Alston rejected the AFP’s efforts to label reports of hundreds of political murders as mere leftist propaganda.
While he refused to be dragged into “the numbers game,” calling it unproductive, Alston said, “the number is high enough to be distressing.”
Meeting separately with civil society groups, Alston noted the “corrosive” effects of extrajudicial killings.
“You kill a few hundreds and you intimidate hundreds of thousands,” he pointed out.
He said the problem “sends a message of vulnerability to all but the most well-connected,” and “severely undermines the political discourse which is central to a resolution of the problems confronting the country.”
The independent investigator praised the high quality of documentation provided by human-rights groups.
“Much importance was attached to two persons who had been listed as killed, but who were presented to me alive,” Alston pointed out, referring to a case often used to discredit the rights group Karapatan.
“Two errors, in circumstances which might partly explain the mistakes, do very little to discredit the vast number of remaining allegations,” he stressed.
No purge, either
The UN investigator also branded as “fabrication” and “disinformation” the military’s other claim, which attributes the killings to a New People’s Army purge.
“This theory was relentlessly pushed by the AFP and many of my government interlocutors,” he said.
“But we must distinguish the number of 1,227 cited by the military from the limited number of cases in which the CPP/NPA have acknowledged, indeed boasted, of killings. While such cases have certainly occurred, even those most concerned about them, such as members of Akbayan, have suggested to me that they could not amount to even 10 percent of the total killings.”
He said the AFP continues to present figures and trends relating to the purges of the late 1980s and on an alleged communist document captured in May 2006, describing “Operation Bushfire.”
“In the absence of much stronger supporting evidence this particular document bears all the hallmarks of fabrication and cannot be taken as evidence of anything other than disinformation.”
While praising President Arroyo for taking some steps to resolve the serious problem of rights violations, Alston said a lot remains to be done.
One of the first things the government must do, he said, is to release the Melo Commission report.
Alston, who also met with members of the special body, refused to discuss the contents of the report but said the government’s reasons for withholding it are “unconvincing.”
“The report was never intended to be preliminary or interim,” he pointed out.
“The need to get ‘leftists’ to testify is no reason with withhold a report which in some ways at least vindicates their claims,” Alson said. “And extending a Commission whose composition has never succeeded in winning full cooperation seems unlikely to cure the problems still perceived by these groups.”
Alston described different responses at different levels of government.
“There has been a welcome acknowledgment of the seriousness of the problem at the very top,” he said. “At the executive level, the messages have been very mixed and often unsatisfactory. At the operational level, the allegations have too often been met with a response of incredulity, mixed with offense.”
During his stay, Alston met with President Arroyo, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, and Secretaries Raul Gonzales of Justice, Ronaldo Puno of Interior and Local Government and Jesus Dureza of the Peace Process.
He also met with members of Task Force Usig, Melo Commission, Moro National Liberation Front, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and more than 200 witnesses in Davao, Manila and Baguio. –Jonathan Hicap and Inday Espina-Varona, Manila Times