The Philippines already has one of the highest levels of impunity and yet the situation could still get worse.
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – “There’s a threat of a revolutionary government in the air today,” former Bayan Muna Representative Neri Colmenares said by way of introducing a brief note to a gathering of human rights defenders.
However, it is not the type of revolutionary government that would implement sweeping reforms. The rights defenders, some are survivors and some are under threat of state-sponsored attacks, showed in their faces feelings of both alarm and defiance.
They were gathered Nov. 22 for the second National Conference to End Impunity. The conference is one of the main activities of the project “Confronting Challenges on Human Rights Defenders in the Philippines,” which is being supported by the European Union under the European Instrument on Democracy and Human Rights. The conference was organized by a consortium of organizations comprised of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, Pagkakaisa Ng Mga Biktima Para Sa Hustisya or Hustisya, Kalipunan ng mga Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas, and Bulatlat-Alipato Media Center.
The context of the gathering: the Philippines has one of the highest ranking among 69 countries in terms of level of impunity, 45 years after Martial Law, as reported by the 2017 Global Impunity Indices. Human rights defenders continue to experience the same kinds of human rights violations prevalent during previous administrations. Since President Duterte assumed power, extrajudicial killings related to his “war on drugs” have generated public outcries.
As of July 2017, the human rights group Karapatan has recorded 78 cases of politically related extrajudicial killings and 848 illegal arrests. There are 418,782 displaced from their communities and 357,659 driven to evacuate due to indiscriminate firing and aerial bombardment.
What’s worse is that these rights violations are state-sponsored. Colmenares said there are ample direct pieces of evidence, accounts of eyewitnesses, CCTV footages, pointing to the state forces as perpetrators of these rights violations. He discussed the evident patterns in the killings that all point to state security forces as perpetrators. He cited the vilification of the target victims, the increased surveillance and harassment, the sheer brazenness of the acts of killings – committed in broad daylight or in front of many witnesses as if the perpetrators have no fear of being arrested – and the utter lack of interest of the government to investigate and pursue the perpetrators.
How will the “revolutionary government” factor into the trend of continuing impunity in rights violations? Colmenares asked. It would have been good news if “revolutionary” meant that real change is coming. But, he said, this ‘revolutionary’ is just a legal term. “It just says that somebody is going to enforce an unconstitutional government.”
That is a threat, Colmenares told the rights defenders. He urged the public to tell the Duterte government that you cannot just impose a “revolutionary” government.
Worse than Marcos’? Creeping new strongman rule
There’s a pending bill, a “shocking piece of resolution” in Congress called Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) No. 8 seeking to amend the Constitution. According to Colmenares, it holds the “recipe for impunity.”
From the discussion, the proposed bill is shocking for many reasons. It proposes to abolish Congress. “Imagine, it is the Congress proposing to abolish itself!” Colmenares exclaimed. Also, the ‘shocking’ bill proposes to give legislative power to the president, much like the late dictator Marcos who issued decrees.
Colmenares said the proposed bill also seeks a complete overhaul of the judicial system. It will transform the Regional Trial Courts into Regional District Courts and would ask all judges to resign. President Duterte would then appoint all justices and judges.
All Constitutional commissions are to be abolished. President Duterte will appoint all 57 members of the Constitutional Commission. “If this is not centralizing power in one person, what is?” asked Colmenares.
He added that if centralization of power (dictatorship) happens, impunity will reign. What can the people do to avert this?
“We do battle in Congress, we seldom win there, there’s a supermajority. We sometimes do battle in the Courts, we seldom win there. The justice system is skewed against the poor,” Colmenares said. That leaves the human rights defenders the same options the Filipinos took to fight the Marcos dictatorship. “In the many times we do battle in the streets that’s the time we win. Because in the streets are the people and the people will demand to end impunity now.”