The Alston Report : What is the UN’s Next Move?

The AFP kills citizens it is sworn to protect and, as Alston has warned, it will do so until it is called to account for its homicidal behavior.

Contributed to Bulatlat

A lot of history seems to have been forgotten as the Philippines lurches toward the May elections. Only a nation without a memory could be preparing to vote into office such an appalling assortment of trapos (traditional politicians), Marcos torturers, coup plotters, and other freebooters. The fact of the matter is that the political situation has lost its moral direction.

When, Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings recently criticized the Arroyo government and the armed forces, did Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez resign in disgrace? Of course not; instead, he launched into an irrelevant and disgraceful attack on Mr. Alston himself. Filipinos should be almost as horrified about the fact that their senior law officer has become so intensely politicized as about the hundreds of brutal murders he is choosing to ignore, misunderstand, or condone.

UN Special Rapporteur on extrajuidicial, summary or arbitrary executions Phillip Alston during his visit to the House of Representatives

Meanwhile, the work of the UN Rapporteur and his carefully calibrated findings need to be much better understood. Initially, his mission arose from massive local and overseas concern about the wave of killings which has swept the Philippines since Gloria Arroyo assumed office in 2001. Now comes his clear warning about the highly-corrosive effect of extrajudicial killings and political repression on the Philippines as a whole.

Government and military involvement was obvious not only to Alston, but to all but the perpetrators themselves. Indeed, the high level of political repression which has accompanied the murders clearly relates to Oplan Bantay Laya 1 and 2, savage counter-insurgency campaigns underwritten by the United States in its so-called Global War on Terrorism.

Alston conducted a ten-day tour of the archipelago. This was not long enough to gain an understanding of the feudal and faltering political system, but quite adequate for deciding that the AFP was behind the liquidation of ordinary Philippine citizens. What he has been looking at, therefore, are specific examples of state terror.

Significant member

Despite the dismissive comments made by Secretary Gonzalez, Mr. Alston is a significant member of the UN team designated to monitor Human Rights abuses throughout the world. An Australian professor of law at New York University, he is one of the most highly-regarded international jurists today. He has considerable experience as a UN investigator. He has worked for UNICEF and also spent eight years as chair of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. He has recently conducted inquiries in Nigeria, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, Lebanon and Israel. He made an important HR report to the UN just before coming to the Philippines. He is very widely respected.

Ironically, Alston works for (and reports to) the UN Human Rights Council; the Philippines was appointed to the HRC in a very controversial decision last year! Applying for membership, the Arroyo regime claimed it would “continue to be a voice for vulnerable groups and will support human rights-based approaches that address their concerns”. Sadly, the Philippines has never been such a voice!

Not only did the Philippine government provide such solemn assurances about domestic observance, but it gave undertakings to promote human rights internationally, especially within ASEAN. It is a signatory of all the major conventions. Manila’s permanent representative to the UN, Lauro Baja, Jr. announced at the time: “Our election is a telling testimonial from member states of the United Nations and the international community on human rights in the Philippines”. Dismal reading now!

Guarantees were lost in excessive legal jargon, however, and even proposed anti-terrorism legislation was cited as a HR measure! Yet the Philippines is a signatory of all major rights conventions. As the situation in countries like the Philippines has worsened, UN experts have criticized the tendency to conceal military excesses behind the smokescreen of fighting crime and terrorism.

Sad comment

In the current case, then, Alston was required to investigate a member of the HRC which employs him. It is a sad comment on the present crisis within the United Nations that he was placed in this position by a controversial decision of the General Assembly to allow the Philippines to sit on the HRC; clearly the vote should have been taken more seriously. Will the Philippine delegate now seek to white-ant the Alston report from within the HRC? The HRC has taken a battering since it replaced the Commission on Human Rights, some critics questioning how serious the UN remains about human rights.

The UN has serious problems; it risks being completely ignored. Throughout the Marcos years and since, Philippine representatives in Geneva insisted that successive governments in Manila were honoring their obligations. This was monstrously untrue.

The HRC is not a tribunal – nothing will come of any UN reports and recommendations without the agreement of the Arroyo regime. The International Criminal Court has some real authority. It could reach into the Philippines and arrest abusive soldiers, but the United States is doing everything possible to limit its scope and powers as part of a brutal counterinsurgency campaign.

Alston himself has criticized the self-regulatory nature of participation in HRC work. The UN can only act when its rapporteur is officially allowed to visit particular trouble spots. He has asked, “Why should they have to respond to detailed critical reports while a host of other countries which had either dismissed or ignore such requests were exempted from scrutiny”. He insists that the HRC must be given a stronger mandate.

Meanwhile, the United Nations is considering wider use of the truth and reconciliation process whereby perpetrators of HR violations confess their crimes in return for amnesty. This prevents the baddies from constantly re-inventing themselves. The act of remembering and the addressing of unrighted wrongs are essential for the Philippines. Critics complain about aspects of this technique as applied in countries like South Africa, but it would be better than nothing.

Death squads

In comments last year about Guatemala, Alston criticized the instability provoked by death squads and extrajudicial killings. He urged the need for institutional reform (where would anyone start with the AFP?), but also emphasized a more fundamental matter: “The universal challenge is to end impunity – the fact that those who kill can get away with it and have no reason not to continue and even escalate their murderous ways”. His findings on the Philippines are likely to focus on the same problem. He has already damned “the culture of impunity” in this country.

For now, Professor Alston will present a preliminary report to the HRC on March 27; his full report will take considerably longer to complete. The first document will precede the May vote and is likely to be a bombshell. He almost certainly will draw attention to the way impunity has compromised the legal system. Perhaps more importantly, he will be seeking ways to ensure that Manila takes notice of his criticisms. He will make a number of suggestions about accountability. He will certainly be analyzing the compliance of the Philippines with international law, which threatens to be a pre-election embarrassment.

Professor Alston described the AFP as resembling an untreated alcoholic. In turn, the military and its defenders argue that he was brainwashed by the Left, though heaven knows how. Visitors like Alston can direct an objective gaze on a problem which few domestic critics are brave enough to confront. With a government which lacks legitimacy and an army out of control, the Philippines desperately needs people who can speak truth to power. The mounting number of dead and wounded, the suppression of ordinary political activity, and the imposition of the authoritarian Arroyo regime indicate that help must to some extent come from outside.

Professor Alston made a significant contribution to identifying a terrible evil, but for the moment the AFP, rather than registering shame and disgrace, has launched an even greater campaign of terror. It is clearly determined to interfere with the forthcoming election in ways which have become institutionalized since the Marcos period. Intimidation of squatters in Barangay Commonwealth, Quezon City, and the brutal murder of Anakpawis official Renato [Atong] Pacaide in Davao del Sur, both incidents only a week after Alston’s departure, reveal the AFP’s utter contempt for the United Nations.

It would be shameful if the UN Special Rapporteur’s visit actually worsened the situation. Perhaps further gains will be made with the release of his reports – perhaps not. For now, there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel. The AFP kills citizens it is sworn to protect and, as Alston has warned, it will do so until it is called to account for its homicidal behavior. The United Nations currently appears to lack that ability. GMA surely would not have invited the UN representative to the Philippines if he was likely to make a damned bit of difference!(

*Peter Sales is presently a Senior Lecturer in History and Politics at the University of Wollongong, Australia where he has taught various courses in U.S. history since the beginnings of time. Most recently, he has also been a Research Associate of the Unibersidad ng Pilipinas (University of the Philippines) at the Diliman campus in Metro Manila.

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