UN blames military for political slays

Published by rudy Date posted on February 22, 2007

MANILA, Philippines — Whatever the figure, the number of killings of journalists and leftist activists in the Philippines is “distressing,” and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo should persuade the Armed Forces to “acknowledge” the fact and conduct a “genuine” investigation, United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston said Wednesday.

Alston, who has just concluded a 10-day visit to “inquire into the phenomenon of extrajudicial executions,” also said the President should make public the findings of the Melo Commission, which linked retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan and other military commanders to the killings.

Alston said he did not know exactly how many had died, but added:

“I am certain the number is high enough to be distressing.

“The impact of even a limited number of killings of the type alleged is corrosive in many ways.”

While the President’s directives in response to the Melo Report “constitute important first steps,” he said, “a huge amount” of work needed to be done.

The human rights group Karapatan claims that more than 800 people, mostly leftist activists, had been murdered or reported missing since Ms Arroyo came to power in 2001. But the military says most of the deaths could be attributed to internal fighting in the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (CPP/NPA).

Almost total denial’

“The AFP remains in a state of almost total denial (as its official response to the Melo Report amply demonstrates) of the need to respond effectively and authentically to the significant number of killings which have been convincingly attributed to [it],” Alston said at a news conference, reading from a press statement on his initial findings.

Immediately afterward, he left for the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). He flew out of Manila at 12:15 p.m. on board a Korean Air plane bound for Seoul, where he will take a connecting flight to New York.

According to Alston, Ms Arroyo showed “good faith” when she formed the commission chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo in August last year.

“But the political and other capital that should have followed is being slowly but surely drained away by the refusal to publish the report,” he said.

The Melo Commission submitted its findings to the President in January. After initial reluctance, saying the report was “by no means complete,” Malacañang has released the report to Alston, the European Union and the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights.

Alston said he had met with Ms Arroyo and senior members of her Cabinet, military, security and judiciary officials, as well as human rights advocates, representatives of civil society organizations, and relatives of alleged victims of extrajudicial killings.

He said his “formal role” was to report his findings to the UN Human Rights Council and to the Philippine government. He said he expected his final report to be ready within the next three months.

Unconvincing evidence’

Alston said that while Ms Arroyo had acknowledged the “seriousness” of the problem, other government officials had reacted with “incredulity” and dismissed reports of the killings as “propaganda.”

He said military and other government officials had “relentlessly pushed” the theory that the killings were the result of a purge within the CPP/NPA.

“[But] the evidence offered by the military in support of this theory is especially unconvincing,” Alston said.

He said concerned sectors, including the party-list group Akbayan, had suggested that of the 1,227 killings blamed by the military on the CPP/NPA, not even 10 percent could be attributed to the latter.

According to Alston, the military is like an alcoholic who refuses to admit addiction to alcohol.

“The guy says, ‘Look, I’m not an alcoholic, I’m not. I just have a few occasional drinks and sometimes I like it. But that’s it. It’s not a problem.’ That’s just how I see the military at this stage,” Alston said, adding:

“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.”

Counterinsurgency

Alston, who has taken part in human rights missions in Sri Lanka, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Nigeria since the 1970s, suggested a reevaluation of the Philippine government’s counterinsurgency strategy.

“In some areas, an appeal to hearts and minds is combined with an attempt to vilify Left-leaning organizations and to intimidate leaders of such organizations. In some instances, such intimidation escalates into extrajudicial execution,” he said.

He also said “the enduring and much larger challenge” was to “restore the various accountability mechanisms” put in place by the Philippine Constitution and Congress, “too many of which have been systematically drained of their force in recent years.”

Virtual impunity

As well, Alston called for the strengthening of the witness protection program (WPP) in order to address “the problem of virtual impunity that prevails.”

He described the WPP as “impressive — on paper.”

“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,” he said.

Alston also called for an acceptance of “the need to provide legitimate political space for leftist groups.”

He said that despite the party-list system and the repeal of the Anti-Subversion Act, “the executive branch, openly and enthusiastically aided by the military,” had been “trying to impede the work of the party-list groups and to put in question their right to operate freely.”

‘Small victory’

But Pedro Gonzales, a leader of the militant fisherfolk group Pamalakaya, on Wednesday said he took little comfort in Alston’s initial findings.

Gonzales, 62, told Agence France-Presse that Alston’s findings were a “small victory,” and that he doubted the bloodshed would stop.

“The killings will continue. There is this policy to silence us,” he said from an undisclosed location in Manila.

According to Gonzales’ account, he was smoking a cigarette outside his modest house in Quezon province two years ago when two men casually walked up to him and pumped nine bullets into his head and body.

He fell to the ground in a pool of blood as neighbors ran to his side. “I didn’t know I had been shot until I could feel my own blood oozing out of my body,” he told the wire agency.

Gonzales miraculously survived, but his life since then has been one of constantly moving and looking over his shoulder.

Ambush survivor

The attempt on his life by a “death squad” left him with deep emotional scars, as well as an impaired nervous system that now forces him to walk with a severe limp.

Gonzales said the ambush was related to his activism.

The military has denied involvement in the attack, but Gonzales said his relatives and friends saw intelligence agents trying to enter the hospital lobby where he was taken after the ambush.

He said that when the agents saw his family had spotted them, they quickly withdrew.

“They failed to finish the job and I am still lying low, moving from one place to another so as not to be detected,” he said.

Gonzales was among those interviewed by Alston, and his case is now among the voluminous documents that the UN rapporteur would use in preparing a final report.

“It’s a good thing there was international pressure that led to this UN investigation. But between now and the final report, I’m telling you, more will die,” Gonzales said.

Vindication

Reached for comment on the phone, Karapatan secretary general Marie Hilao Enriquez said: “We feel that we have been vindicated by what [Alston] said, that allegations of extrajudicial killings are not trumped up but rather credible.”

Enriquez added: “We are happy and thankful that he went around to meet and listen to the victims … His visit opened up cases and brought out witnesses.”

At the NAIA, staff members of Korean Air said Alston was due to arrive in the United States at 7:20 p.m. of Feb. 21 (New York time).

They said he was assisted by an officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs when he checked in.

Public affairs officers of the Manila International Airport Authority said Alston no longer passed through the Dignitaries Lounge, where special accommodations had been prepared for him. –Fe Zamora, Inquirer with reports from Agence France-Presse and Tarra Quismundo

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