The US-based, 30-year-old organization Human Rights Watch — the Asia Division of which, incidentally, former New York Times and International Herald Tribune freelance correspondent Carlos Conde is now the Philippine researcher — describes itself as “one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse.”
Human Rights Watch also declares that its mission is “protecting the human rights of people around the world.” It claims to “stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice. We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable. We challenge governments and those who hold power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law. We enlist the public and the international community to support the cause of human rights for all.”
These are claims that have been challenged, for example in terms of HRW’s alleged partiality and supposedly flawed research. It has been accused of being influenced by US government policy — but also of being anti-Israel and pro-Arab. It’s also been accused of being run by leftists with an ideological agenda — under whose oversight, however, leftist governments like that of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela have come under intense criticism, and which in response have accused HRW of bias. Some governments, among them that of China, have also accused HRW of interfering in China’s internal affairs, and in one instance even ridiculed it for “wearing tinted glasses, or only squinting.”
On the other hand, it has come in for praise for its impartiality — it reported abuses by the Hamas government of Gaza, for example, in the same way that it reports abuses by Israeli troops in the occupied territories of Palestine-and has been commended by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for its role in the creation of the UN Human Rights Council.
Both the criticisms as well as the praise for it are in HRW’s Web site (www.hrw.org), which for me at least is itself a positive statement about HRW. My only reservation is that, among those who single it out for praise is Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, whose gross intolerance for opinions contrary to his own makes his credentials as a journalist dubious at best.
In any event, the same differences in opinion about HRW are echoed in the criticism and approval of most other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in human rights monitoring and reporting. They reflect the fact that while human rights remain controversial issues for governments, they have also become central enough to their concerns for them to care about how they’re perceived by the global community.
The 2012 HRW report on the Philippines in its “World Report 2012” is as straight forward as its past reports, and as anyone aware of the human rights situation in the Philippines would attest, fairly accurate.
Summarizing the contents of the report, a news release by the HRW Asia Division urges the government of Benigno Aquino III to “disable abusive paramilitary forces and take concrete steps to hold those responsible for killings and other rights violations to account.”
HRW echoes the view of Philippine human rights organizations that “The administration of President Benigno Aquino III has not fulfilled its promises of reform and made little progress in ending impunity for abuses by state security forces… Extrajudicial killings and torture of leftist activists, alleged communist rebels, and accused criminals continue, but the government has failed to acknowledge and address involvement in these crimes by the security forces and local officials.”
The HRW Philippine report does acknowledge such “unprecedented development(s)” in 2011 as the issuance of a warrant of arrest for retired Army general and former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo henchman Jovito Palparan and other military officers for the 2006 abduction and disappearance of University of the Philippines students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan. It also notes, however, that it was the students’ relatives and not the government that filed the complaint against Palparan and company.
While urging the Aquino government to do more to affect the arrest of Palparan and his cohorts, HRW points out that “unlawful killings continue and the government should do more to hold those responsible to account.”
The organization says it has “documented at least seven extrajudicial killings and three enforced disappearances for which there is strong evidence of military involvement since Aquino took office in June 2010.” (These figures are lower than the dozens of EJKs and at least eight enforced disappearances since 2010 the Philippine human rights group Karapatan has documented.)
The report overall underlines not only the failure of the Aquino III administration to dismantle the paramilitary groups, but also reminds us all who have to live in these isles of fear of the reality that the military has become a practically independent power because of its role in combating so-called insurgencies, in the course of which its units commit human rights abuses that include outright murders, torture, and abductions. Some of those units also routinely occupy, despite a law that makes it illegal, school buildings, barangay halls and other public facilities during anti-insurgency operations they currently disguise as “peace and development” efforts.
While the cause of the problem is known, the Aquino administration, despite its promise to end human rights violations, has not only failed, but has actually openly refused, to dismantle the paramilitary groups that were among those responsible, for example, for the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre of 58 men and women including 32 journalists, because it regards these groups as necessary to combat the Muslim and communist-led “insurgencies.”
The inevitable result of this policy that’s no different from that of the much-despised Arroyo regime’s is the reaffirmation and enhancement of warlord and military power in the communities. The dismantling of the paramilitaries and the curbing of military power would considerably reduce human rights abuses in the Philippines. But like his predecessors, who deep in their hearts believed — they knew — that preserving elite privilege and power depends on military support, gun enthusiast Aquino III won’t bite that bullet.
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Published in Business World
January 26, 2012