Outrage, shame and accountability

For almost two weeks now, the midnight “maritime incident” near Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea has exercised to a considerable degree the Filipinos’ collective sense of outrage, then of outrage combined with disappointment, frustration, and shame. And their basic demand for accountability for the incident and its consequences calls for prompt and appropriate action.

The initial outrage was directed against the captain and crew of the Chinese vessel which, after hitting and sinking the anchored Filipino boat, sailed on and abandoned the 22 fishermen thrown into the sea. Such action violates the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and international maritime law.

The outrage-disappointment-frustration-shame was provoked by the confusing statements made by President Duterte and his government, its maneuvers to downplay the severity of the incident, and its embarrassing deference to the Chinese in slavishly welcoming a “joint investigation” suggested by China’s foreign ministry. (Take note, though, that Malacanang is still “await[ing] a formal communication” on the matter from the Chinese embassy, as Duterte’s spokesperson Salvador Panelo has admitted.)

The proposed joint investigation plays smack into China’s policy of resolving disputes bilaterally, wherein China has the greater say on how the process should move. How the Filipinos’ demand for accountability could be satisfied through such a skewed process remains a big question.

Accountability in this case isn’t only directed at the Chinese. In a broader sense, it primarily requires the Duterte government to act firmly and decisively, not only in the interest of the Filipino fishing boat owner and its crew, but in asserting Philippine sovereignty over Recto Bank, which is part of the country’s exclusive economic zone (meaning, exploitation of marine resources there is solely for the benefit of the Filipino people).

We shall closely monitor further developments in this case.

Meantime, there’s another issue of accountability that preceded the Recto Bank ramming incident. This has to do with the continuing incidences of extrajudicial killings, targeting both suspected illegal drug pushers and users, on the one hand, and on the other hand, political-social activists, including human rights defenders, and members of people’s organizations suspected of and tagged as “supporters” of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

Renewed attention to this issue was spurred by a joint statement last June 7 by 11 United Nations human rights experts. They expressed alarm over the scale and seriousness of the reported human rights violations (HRVs) in the Philippines. Independent investigations should be conducted, they said, noting that the government has allowed the perpetrators to go unpunished – perpetuating a climate of impunity.

But the Duterte government once again immediately spurned the proposed independent investigations (to be conducted by UN special rapporteurs on the EJKs and other HRV cases) as an affront to sovereignty and international interference in domestic affairs.

Instantly responding, human rights alliance Karapatan issued this statement. “If the Duterte government has nothing to hide, it should be open and receptive to these forms of investigation, instead of being the foremost impediment to justice and accountability.” The government’s refusal, it added, “will further discredit its membership in the UN Human Rights Council and it will be taken as a statement of non-transparency and utter disregard for its human rights obligations under binding treaties and agreements.”

This week another major daily came out with an editorial on this issue. The editorial took off from the fact that in three days (June 15-17) four killings took place – two in Sorsogon and Naga cities, with three activists killed (two of them Karapatan workers), and one in Bukidnon (the victim, member of a local peasant organization affiliated with the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas or KMP). “Three days. Four deaths. Zero accountability,” it declared.

Citing the names of the victims, the editorial said, “They are the latest names added to the lengthening list of political activists who have died by assassination, underscoring the alarming escalation in the killings of members of the legal left.” Not surprisingly, it linked these killings to the officially acknowledged slaying of 6,600 persons in the Duterte government’s “all-out war” against illegal drugs since 2016. “By all indications,” it observed, “[the drug war] morphed into an all-out war against activists and human rights defenders.”

It traced that linkage to President Duterte’s speech before soldiers at a military camp in Compostela Valley last December, wherein the president ordered the military to “destroy” the CPP-NPA, including “its legal fronts and infrastructure.” It quoted Duterte as having told the soldiers not to believe in human rights, vowing: “I assume full responsibility.”

Correlated with the extrajudicial killings, there have been increasing arrests of political activists on various trumped-up charges. One scheme has become de rigueur: the planting of firearms and explosives during the raids and arrests. Objective: to detain the arrested persons indefinitely by charging them with illegal possession of explosives, which is not bailable.

To date there are 536 political prisoners in various detention centers and provincial/city jails. This prompted relatives and friends of the detainees last June 15 to relaunch Kapatid, an association organized in 1978 that worked for the release and welfare of political detainees under the Marcos dictatorship.

Former Sen. Wigberto Tañada, who spoke at the Kapatid relaunching, suggested that the UN human rights investigations on EJKs (believed to be perpetrated by state security forces) should include the cases of political prisoners “who are being deliberately and wrongfully detained, prosecuted, or convicted as part of the state policy of political persecution.”

“The policy of criminalization of political dissent is a carryover from the martial law years,” Tanada said. “That this policy has survived into the present speaks volumes about the current state of human rights and justice under this administration, which has made trial and conviction by presidential cursing and the presumption of guilt the new normal,” he concluded.

If the current dispensation refuses to be held accountable by the world community for treating its own innocent citizens as criminals, how can it demand international responsibility from a foreign government?

Published in Philippine Star
June 22, 2019

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