Where Now for the Abusive AFP?
To honor its electoral promises, the incoming US administration must confront the AFP, along with other agents of repression which have operated with impunity during the Bush years. Alston’s condemnation of that impunity was unmistakable, but the Pentagon, US Special Forces, and various intelligence agencies have ignored such criticism, promoting the Bantay Laya counterinsurgency program that runs roughshod over Human Rights and makes a mockery of any notion of a “democratic space”. The new Obama team in Washington, DC, has the opportunity to restrain the whole obscenity of counterinsurgency whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or Colombia or the Philippines. The Obama revolution won’t have achieved much if it cannot guarantee people in these troubled countries the freedom to practice democracy – or their own version of it – without the endless fear of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
BY PETER M. SALES
Who remembers the visit to the Philippines by Prof Philip Alston early last year? Two seemingly unrelated events during November conjure up memories of that turbulent event. Some skeptics have already dismissed it as an unsuccessful attempt to assert the authority of the United Nations through its Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings. Alston had a difficult time; his integrity was questioned by high-ranking monsters. He actually went to Afghanistan after the Philippines, drawing more flak by condemning the Kabul regime and its Western sponsors for the appallingly high number of civilian deaths there. “States are obliged to take positive steps to ensure that their administrative and judicial institutions do in fact operate effectively”, he insisted in May of this year. “This may require the State to make changes to its institutions, laws and practices”.
At the moment there is a large and growing disjunction between governments and their armed forces. In countries like the Philippines, the tail wags the dog as a consequence of punitive antiterrorism legislation after 9/11. A crisis has occurred in civil-military relations aggravated by the promotion of a counterinsurgency doctrine emphasizing nation-building and the cooptation of POs, NGOs, and academe. But all that may be set to change.
The first event of particular relevance here is the extraordinary election of Barack Obama, which will undoubtedly reconfigure the US relationship with the United Nations, making the world body more powerful and restoring much of its tarnished image. Countries with appalling HR records like the Philippines may even be expelled from the Human Rights Council. If such basic reforms do not occur, disappointment with the first black president will be overwhelming and he will join Jimmy Carter as a one-term idealist who simply couldn’t do the hard yards.
Already the Democratic Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has been highly critical of the HR situation in the Philippines. Now even more Democrats have been elected to Congress and a particularly progressive leader has won the White House. Without doubt, the political climate has changed; the entire neo-con experiment has been repudiated. Although the Philippines is undoubtedly not high on the new president’s agenda, Human Rights and a policy shift away from the abuses of counterinsurgency will be.
For now, the GRP continues its terror campaign against opponents, even while feigning outrage over the Alston findings and trooping off en masse (Arroyo sent nearly 40 bureaucrats and advisers to Geneva in April) to challenge the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. Manila had earlier established the Inter-Agency Legal Action Group (IALAG) to harass alleged enemies of the state. Most recently the IALAG has taken action against a huge number of activists in Southern Tagalog. Measures have been implemented under US direction to manipulate the judicial system; this is done with SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) and other legal offensives in a general campaign known as “lawfare”. Will the dynamic new breeze blowing through the corridors of power in Washington tolerate such shenanigans? Only if these are not sufficiently publicized and decent people remain silent. What is needed now is for civil society to begin asserting itself more forcefully. Then – but only then – will US funding for the AFP begin to dry up.
The second noteworthy event of recent times is the extrajudicial killing of Bayan Muna activist Danny Qualbar in the Compostela Valley early in November. It reveals the complete lack of action by the Arroyo regime in regard to the recommendations made by the UN Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings. The BM coordinator was shot dead by unidentified gunmen while riding home from work near Tagum, Davao del Norte, on the afternoon of November 6. Qualbar is far from being the only victim of AFP death squads since Alston’s departure (BM organizer Rolando Antolihao was shot dead in the same area four days later), but his murder exactly replicates the hundreds of cases that the UN rapporteur investigated almost two years ago.
Especially troublesome is the clear evidence of the military’s impunity. Spokesman for Eastern Mindanao Command, Major Randolph Cabangbang, blamed the NPA and said that Qualbar might have been the victim of a communist “cleansing drive”, a claim coming nearly two years after Alston branded such utter nonsense as … utter nonsense! The UN rapporteur decided the AFP’s insistence that “the ‘purge theory’ is correct can only be viewed as a cynical attempt to displace responsibility”.
Cabangbang’s silliest remark was that the murder would be properly investigated. This is a PR device whereby the armed forces present themselves as above suspicion when they are in reality at their most culpable. There is simply nobody to hold them to account. Alston called attention to this many times, but it is as if his inquiry never happened. And such will remain the case while the AFP’s counterinsurgency mission is allowed to continue unchallenged. Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines (OEF-P), already a template for American strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, must be subjected to much more criticism and analysis. Nobody should ever condone an official policy of murdering civilians.
Prof Alston could not have been more certain on the matter: “Counter-insurgency strategy and recent changes in the priorities of the criminal justice system are of special importance to understanding why the killings continue”. The US war-fighting doctrine has created a nightmare whereby targeting of civilians is regarded as a legitimate part of a pacification program intended to secure the so-called Human Terrain! Current policy includes punitive measures against sectoral organizations and the systematic harassment of non-combatants. This is a so-called holistic or total approach which draws civil society into an essentially military struggle. In the countryside, state terror is still state terror. The UN Rapporteur was shocked by the AFP’s behavior and by the lack of blame when he visited last year. What has changed since? Which of his many sensible recommendations have been adopted?
Prof Alston returned to the question of impunity earlier this year. He was very skeptical of official gestures like the willy-nilly establishing of investigative bodies. “Sometimes, commissions are announced with great fanfare, but an inquiry never actually begins its work”. So will it be with the death of Danny Qualbar if current procedures remain in place.
Whatever else, the brutal slaying of the Bayan Muna leader comes at a critical juncture. He was killed, after all, because he was on the order of battle of a US-controlled, US-trained military machine tasked with suppressing popular unrest. Bantay Laya and its excesses are supervised by Washington, partly through the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines (JSOTF-P). Thus could Basil Fernando of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission ask: “Will Obama’s America stop exporting fear”?
To honor its electoral promises, the incoming US administration must confront the AFP, along with other agents of repression which have operated with impunity during the Bush years. Alston’s condemnation of that impunity was unmistakable, but the Pentagon, US Special Forces, and various intelligence agencies have ignored such criticism, promoting the Bantay Laya counterinsurgency program that runs roughshod over Human Rights and makes a mockery of any notion of a “democratic space”. The new Obama team in Washington, DC, has the opportunity to restrain the whole obscenity of counterinsurgency whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or Colombia or the Philippines. The Obama revolution won’t have achieved much if it cannot guarantee people in these troubled countries the freedom to practice democracy – or their own version of it – without the endless fear of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. (Bulatlat.com)