Human rights advocates have reason to both cheer and jeer about the human rights situation in the country.
While the number of unexplained killings noticeably decreased in the past year, the goal of achieving justice for the victims and their families by having perpetrators punished remains elusive.
Moreover, human rights advocates are increasingly facing different types of harassment such as the filing of trumped-up charges, which involve more or less the same “victims” – activists.
No less than the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), a constitutional body tasked to promote and protect human rights of Filipinos, admits that the government’s performance in dealing with human rights concerns in the country is still “abysmal.”
CHR chair Leila de Lima, who took the helm of the agency early this year to lead the Fourth Commission, affirmed that cases of unexplained killings went down significantly, but lamented the purported persistence of the “culture of impunity” in the country in the face of the government’s record of “zero convictions” of human rights violators.
“In terms of reported cases of unexplained killings and enforced disappearances, the consensus among record keeping bodies and organizations is that there is an improvement in the human rights record of the country,” De Lima said.
“In terms of successful prosecution of cases of unexplained killings and enforced disappearances, however, the country retains a long-standing and abysmal record. There have yet to be any court-sanctioned convictions of perpetrators of these crimes,” she added.
She likewise stressed that cases of human rights abuse have now seemingly shifted to “different angles” of human right violations, pointing out the “pattern” they have observed involving wanton arrests and abduction, and the filing of cases against militant personalities.
In a recent radio interview, the CHR chief said that incidences of different kinds of harassment appeared to be escalating, and could become the country’s top human rights abuse, replacing unexplained killings.
De Lima also said militant personalities, the usual targets of killings and enforced disappearances in the country, remain the object of harassment that include filing of fabricated and trumped-up charges.
Local human rights watchdog Karapatan also decried the continuing human rights abuses in the country, and scored the government for still being unable to successfully prosecute or convict any violator, especially those already identified as perpetrators of killings, enforced disappearances, and torture.
Karapatan further assailed the unexplained killings and other forms of human rights violations that continue to be committed with “utter impunity” in the Philippines.
“Amidst our celebration of the global triumphs of our advocacy for human rights… struggling people the world over and in the Philippines have yet to achieve social justice,” said Marie Hilao-Enriquez, secretary-general of Karapatan.
According to Karapatan, the Arroyo government has not lived up to the promise of respecting the dignity and fulfilling the human rights of Filipinos.
It even noted that the human rights situation in the country “has not been any better” over the last eight years despite repeated claims of the administration on eradicating poverty and improving democracy.
Karapatan also said that torture and illegal arrests are on the rise and that any indication of a drop in the number of killings is a mere “tactical ploy” of the government to appease global public outrage over the series of unexplained killings in the country.
Karapatan maintained that the downtrend in the number of unexplained killings in the country was “never” the result of any measures taken by the government to arrest, prosecute, and convict those allegedly responsible for the atrocities.
Data from Karapatan showed that in the past 10 months, or from January to October 2008, there were 53 victims of torture and 128 victims of illegal arrest, bringing the total number of victims of torture to 1,010; and of illegal arrest to 1,464, under the Arroyo regime.
As to the number of unexplained killings, Karapatan said it went down to 50 victims, covering the past 10 months of the year, from a total of 94 victims in 2007.
“That the acts of violence persist indicate no significant shift in the internal security policy of government and that the perpetrators and their masterminds are still at large,” Enriquez pointed out.
“The Arroyo government’s continued persecution of political activists clearly shows that it is more interested in coddling and covering up for the criminals responsible for the killings rather than in unmasking their identities,” she also said.
Karapatan then criticized the government for “exploiting the judicial system” to attack or harass leaders and members of militant organizations. It noted that state actors slap fabricated charges against leaders “to paralyze” cause-oriented groups.
The group said that in Southern Tagalog alone, charges and warrants were filed and issued against 72 persons, six of whom are now in jail on the basis of trumped-up accusations.
On the other hand, De Lima admitted that the right to life remains at the forefront of the challenges facing human rights advocates in the Philippines due to incidents such as killings, summary executions, enforced disappearances and other inimical acts that aim or result in the deprivation of life.
The CHR chief mentioned in its yearend report the RCBC massacre, where 10 people were brutally killed; the killing of its alleged suspects in Tanauan, Batangas; the continuous killings of journalists, activists and civilians alike; and, most recently, the death of two civilians, including a seven-year old girl, and the wounding of three others in the deadly shootout between police and alleged members of a bank robbery group in Parañaque City.
The constitutional body’s data disclosed that the CHR has taken cognizance of about 142 cases of “politically-motivated unexplained killings” in the country from 2007 up to the 3rd quarter of last year. Of the 142 cases, the CHR said 30 cases occurred in Region 7; 29 in Region 11; 20 in Region 8; 15 in Region 6; and 12 cases in Region 5.
The CHR said almost all of the 180 victims of unexplained killings were affiliated with certain activist groups, labor organizations, and other political associations.
On enforced disappearances, the CHR said that it documented 37 cases of enforced disappearance, abduction or kidnapping during the same period, with 49 victims mostly from Regions 3 and 8.
De Lima said with the absence of national legislation penalizing the use of torture, police and other personnel involved in the apprehension and detention of suspects, particularly in the National Capital Region (NCR) and some cities in the country, continue to inflict torture and other cruel and degrading treatment of detainees.
However, she added, there are no government statistics on torture incidence.
Nevertheless, De Lima said that ever since the CHR applied the Istanbul Protocol on the Effective Investigation and Reporting of Torture Cases in 2002, they have noted “an increasing trend” in the number of documented torture cases. In fact, she noted, the CHR documented 16 torture cases in reports submitted by nine of its regional offices.
Aside from the right to life, De Lima underscored the need to further assert the rights of persons with disability; housing rights of the urban poor; right to suffrage; people’s economic, social, and cultural rights; right to food; rights of internally displaced persons; as well as the rights of women and children, among others, in the country.
Yet, there is still hope
De Lima emphasized that there is at least some progress in the fight against “crimes of impunity” in the country with the introduction of judicial petitions and invoking extraordinary writs, including the writ of amparo.
She also vowed that the CHR is giving its “most serious attention” to the battle against unexplained killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, saying that the record of “zero convictions” is precisely the motivation that fuels their efforts to really resolve the cases of human rights abuse in the Philippines.
“The challenge brought to our attention by the UN Special Rapporteur on Unexplained Killings and Enforced Disappearances, the European Commission and Human Rights Watch is fundamentally the same: To put an end to crimes of impunity, we must first achieve successful convictions of perpetrators of these crimes,” De Lima said.
“There are many ways to gauge success in our fight against crimes of impunity. The progress of judicial petitions, invoking extraordinary writs, including the writ of amparo, is success in itself.”
“However, the progress of these petitions is just that – progress. We have placed a very high standard for actual and realized success. Nothing less than finality of convictions against the perpetrators of these crimes is the success we seek, and the justice that must be served to the victims,” she also said.
In addition, De Lima stressed the importance of keeping human rights issues – good or bad – in the consciousness of the Filipinos.
De Lima believes that the success or failure as well as the improvement or regression of human rights initiatives and compliance in the country could not solely be based on numerical records.–Katherine Adraneda, Philippine Star