By RONALYN V. OLEA
MANILA – Early on, President Benigno Aquino III vowed to put an end to the killings and bring perpetrators to justice.
Aquino signed in November Administrative Order No. 35, creating a nine-member “Inter-agency committee on Extra-Legal Killings, Enforced Disappearances, Torture and Other Grave Violations of the Right to Life, Liberty and Security of Persons.” The so-called super body is mandated to investigate old and new cases of human rights abuses “with greater priority” to those committed under the past administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The super body is headed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima. Members include the chairman of the Presidential Human Rights Committee (PHRC), the secretaries of the interior and local government and national defense, the presidential adviser on the peace process, the presidential adviser for political affairs, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the director general of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the director of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).
The creation of such super body, however, received lukewarm response from human rights organizations. Human rights group Karapatan expressed skepticism especially since the alleged perpetrators – the AFP and the PNP – are part of the committee.
In a statement released in September, Human Rights Watch noted that “there have been no successful prosecutions of military personnel for extrajudicial killings.”
Human rights lawyers raised the question: “How come nobody has ever been credibly convicted for human rights violations under the present administration after all these years and after all supposed aid and support from foreign governments?” Edre Olalia, secretary general of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL), said. “The Aquino administration has not conducted a deep and thorough investigation, nor has it initiated the filing of substantial countersuit cases against human rights perpetrators…”
After all, the super body is not new.
In its 22-page report to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in May, the Philippine government enumerated several monitoring mechanisms and task forces set up by the Philippine government to address extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, including Justice Department Order 848 and the National Monitoring Mechanism. The UPR is a mechanism of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council to check if all UN member states comply with their human rights obligations.
Issued in December 2010, the Justice Department Order 848 created a Special Task Force to conduct a review of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances since the year 2001. No accomplishment report has been publicly released by the said task force to this day.
According to the Philippine government’s report, the National Monitoring Mechanism will be set up by the PHRC and concerned government agencies, such as the PNP, AFP, DOJ, Department of Labor and Employment, Department of National Defense, NBI, Opapp, and the Judiciary, in partnership with the Commission on Human Rights.
The report stated that the National Monitoring Mechanism’s objectives are two-pronged: a) to develop an effective monitoring mechanism to ensure that justice is served to the victims of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance and torture; and b) to strengthen institutional mandates, capabilities and engagements in effectively resolving cases of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance and torture.
Such task forces and monitoring mechanisms are reminiscent of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Task Force Usig and Melo Commission, which never resulted in the prosecution of perpetrators.
The only positive action taken by Aquino in relation to human rights is the signing of a landmark law criminalizing the practice of enforced disappearance.
Relatives of victims expressed hopes that perpetrators would be brought to justice but said they would remain vigilant.
Just before the signing of the law, Aquino appointed Gen. Eduardo Año, one of the suspects in the abduction of activist Jonas Burgos, as new chief of the Intelligence Services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (Isafp).
Meanwhile, retired Gen. Jovito Palparan and his co-accused, Master Sgt. Rizal Hilario, remain at large despite a warrant of arrest for kidnapping and serious illegal detention of University of the Philippines (UP) students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan.
Another military officer, Brig. Gen. Aurelio Baladad who was implicated in the arrest and detention of the 43 health workers in February 2009, was appointed by Aquino as AFP deputy chief of staff for operations. Baladad is one of the respondents in the torture charges filed by the so-called Morong 43.
Such actions and inactions are a portent of things to come.
Realities on the ground
In its national report to the UPR, the Aquino administration boasted of a decrease in extrajudicial killings. Citing data from Task Force Usig, the Philippine Government reported only 27 cases of extrajudicial killings involving media practitioners and activists from 2008 to 2011.
But human rights groups pointed out that the Aquino administration has not only failed to curb impunity but allowed impunity to flourish under its counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan. Patterned after the United States Counterinsurgency Guide of 2009, Oplan Bayanihan professes peace and development but remains to be a vicious counterinsurgency plan which attacks civilians.
The year 2012 is marked with more killings and other human rights violations perpetrated by alleged state agents. According to human rights group Karapatan, there were 45 victims of extrajudicial killings as of October 2012, bringing the number of those killed to 129 since Aquino assumed office in June 2010.
Seventy-one of the victims since 2010 are farmers and 25 are indigenous peoples. Most of them were vocal against large-scale mining and other so-called development projects.