Philippines: Toward Ensuring Justice and Ending Political Killings

Part 3: Investigating political killings, combating impunity and ensuring the delivery of justice

The Melo Commission

Established by Presidential Administrative Order No. 157, the duties and functions of the Independent Commission to Address Media and Activist Killings include the investigation of killings and the reporting to the President of “action and policy recommendations, including appropriate prosecution and legislative proposals if any, aimed at eradicating the root causes of extrajudicial executions and breaking such cycles of violence one and for all.” The Melo Commission is empowered under the Administrative Code of 1987, inter alia, to summon witnesses, to take testimony or evidence relevant to its investigations, and to deputize the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), the Philippine National Police (PNP), the Department of Justice (DOJ) and any other law enforcement agency to assist it in the performance of its duties.

Chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice, Jose Melo, the Commission is made up also of the Director of the NBI, the Chief State Prosecutor (DOJ), two representatives of civil society (a Regent of the University of the Philippines and a Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church), and a legal counsel. The government members of the Commission from the NBI and DOJ, are tasked in particular with prioritizing the prosecution of those responsible for the killings.

As the Commission begins its work, and noting concerns expressed by some sectors of civil society as to whether the Commission will be sufficiently independent, Amnesty International highlights the following guidelines and principles which it believes will help ensure the credibility and effectiveness of its efforts and recommendations, both during its tenure and in the long term.

A. Fulfilling its mandate

i. Types of violations to be investigated

The Melo Commission should exercise its mandate to fully investigate reports of political killings whether committed by, or with the acquiescence or complicity of, government forces, or by the CPP-NPA or other armed groups. It should assess the information collected in light of relevant provisions of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, as well as relevant Philippine laws.

The Commission should recommend further full and impartial investigations into all suspected political killings that, by the end of its tenure, it has not had the time to inquire into, and to make recommendations for future inquiry and investigation as necessary.

Amnesty International also recommends that the Commission include in its investigations a critical analysis of all factors which have led to or facilitated these violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, such as institutional structures, policies and practices, and other factors.

ii. Period of operation

Although it is important to indicate a time limit for Commissions of Inquiry to end their operations and report on their findings, it is equally important to make that time limit a realistic one. Early reports suggest that the Melo Commission envisages that it may be able to complete its work by December 2006.

Amnesty International is concerned that such a time limit may prove insufficient. It may also make witnesses more hesitant to come forward as they may have doubts about the process being able to reach its final conclusion. At the same time, the organization recognises that an overly extended period of operation risks losing the public’s attention and political momentum.

To some extent, the problem of length of time can be addressed by frequent public reporting and interim conclusions and recommendations. Considering the length and complexity of its investigation, Amnesty International recommends that the Melo Commission publishes regular and frequent interim reports outlining progress made and obstacles encountered. This would help establish and maintain effective communication with the Philippine authorities, civil society organizations and the general public.

B. Powers

i. Broad investigatory powers

Where the Melo Commission considers the police or other investigative agency to have made an inconclusive or otherwise unsatisfactory investigation, it should undertake a prompt, thorough, effective and impartial investigation and not be hampered or otherwise inhibited by following the conclusions of a previous investigation. Investigations should not simply constitute an examination of an existing police investigations file.

Amnesty International believes the credibility of its investigations will be significantly enhanced to the extent that the Commission can rely, where necessary, on its own investigators. Many independent commissions undermine themselves and lose credibility by asking the alleged violators of human rights – such as the armed forces or the police – to investigate allegations of violations of human rights themselves, rather than the independent commission making an investigation itself. Investigators retained by the Melo Commission, should, as necessary, have access to effective and practical training – especially the sharing of skills and best practice from colleagues in the Philippines and abroad. Frequently investigations undertaken with good will fail because of a lack of training in effective investigative procedures and skills. Investigations conducted by Commission investigators should be informed by knowledge of international human rights law so that they can identify and understand legal issues regarding their investigation

The Melo Commission should be able to count on the services of experts in the relevant fields including psychology, pathology, forensic anthropology, and ballistics. In particular, forensic expertise should be on hand at short notice so that effective investigation and recording of post mortem investigations can be done efficiently, increasing the likelihood of bringing perpetrators to justice. The methodology to be employed in autopsies should conform to the United Nations Principles relating to the effective prevention and investigation of extralegal, arbitrary or summary executions.(3) Where the investigation is dealing with unlawful killing, the Commission should have the authority to prevent burial or other disposal of the body or bodies until and adequate post-mortem examination has been carried out.

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