“The Philippine government’s pronouncements on improving human rights have been mostly talk, and not much action.” – Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch
By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – New-York based Human Rights Watch called on the United States government to urge senior Philippine officials visiting Washington this week to fulfill the Aquino government’s commitment to bring abusive military personnel to justice.
On April 30 and May 1, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are scheduled to meet with their Philippine counterparts in Washington for a “2+2 dialogue” of joint meetings with the foreign and defense ministers to discuss defense and strategic security issues.
The group said the US government should not remove a congressional hold on a portion of foreign aid to the Philippines until significant progress has been made with regard to human rights.
“The Philippine government’s pronouncements on improving human rights have been mostly talk, and not much action,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Progress will be measured by results, in particular the prosecution of soldiers and officers implicated in abuses.”
Since 2008, the US government has withheld $2 million to $3 million per year in assistance to the Philippines. This assistance is supposed to be released only if the State Department certifies that the Philippine government “is taking effective steps to prosecute those responsible for extra-judicial executions, sustain the decline in the number of extrajudicial executions, and strengthen government institutions working to eliminate extra-judicial executions.” The conditions are based in part on recommendations to the Philippines by then United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Philip Alston. Alston visited the Philippines in 2007 to investigate the spate of extrajudicial killings under then the Arroyo administration.
The Philippines has not met the conditions, Human Rights Watch said, noting that the State Department since 2008 has never made such a certification.
The group said that while the Philippine military claims that it has been bringing perpetrators to justice, this is “not supported by available evidence.”
Human Rights Watch cited in particular the case of retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan who has been charged with kidnapping and illegal detention in relation to the enforced disappearance of two University of the Philippines (UP) students Karen Empeno and Sherlyn Cadapan in 2006. The group noted that while the Philippine Justice Department did issue an arrest warrant for Palparan in December, Palparan continues to evade arrest, “allegedly with the help of former colleagues in the armed forces.”
Human Rights Watch said that in the past decade, state security forces in the Philippines have been implicated in hundreds of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, particularly of leftist activists and sympathizers, journalists and clergy. “Although the number of cases has gone down since President Benigno Aquino III took office in 2010, there has not been significant progress in prosecutions,” the group said.
In the last decade, only seven cases of extrajudicial killings, involving 11 defendants, have been successfully prosecuted, none since Aquino took power and none involving active duty military personnel, the group said.
In its July 2011 report titled “No Justice Just Adds to the Pain,” Human Rights Watch documented 10 cases of extrajudicial killings and disappearances during the current Aquino administration for which there is strong evidence of military involvement. “Police investigations remain inadequate, as they were in the previous administration, with investigators frequently not visiting crime scenes or collecting only the most obvious evidence. Evidence of military involvement is routinely not pursued, investigations cease after the identification of one suspect, and arrest warrants are frequently left unexecuted. Witnesses are not adequately protected. Not one of these cases has been successfully prosecuted,” the group said.
In its 2011 yearend report, meanwhile, local human rights group Karapatan documented more cases of rights violations under the Aquino administration. The group documented 67 cases of extrajudicial killings, nine disappearances, 55 cases of torture and 78 political arrests in the first one-and-a-half years in power of President Aquino.
“Clinton and Panetta should press for a commitment from their Philippine counterparts for full military cooperation in the investigation of abuses and disciplinary measures against those who fail to do so,” Pearson said. “Too many Filipinos have endured abuses for the US to keep looking the other way.”
The group said US officials should also raise concerns about abuses by paramilitary forces under the supervision of the armed forces. Paramilitary members have been implicated in the killings of civil society activists and in harassing communities deemed to be supporting New People’s Army rebels. “When he ran for president, Aquino promised to rescind an executive order allowing for the creation of ‘private armies,’ but he has backtracked since, and also spoken positively about allowing paramilitary forces to provide security for private corporations, including mining companies,” Human Rights Watch said.
One of the major findings of the recently concluded National Conference on Internally Displaced Persons organized by the End Impunity Alliance and the Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines includes the use of paramilitary groups in quelling opposition to mining projects and other so-called developmental projects.