Déjà vu: Stop the Killings campaign given new push

MANILA, Philippines — The sustained surge of international condemnations and calls for justice and independent investigations on the extrajudicial killings, this month, of peasant leader and peace consultant Randall Echanis and Negros human rights and health worker Zara Alvarez has sparked anew an urgent demand: Stop the Killings!

The demand recalls, and will most likely reprise, the widespread – national and international – campaign in the mid-2000s against the brutal and bloody two-part counterinsurgency program, dubbed “Oplan Bantay Laya I and II”, during the nine-year presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The government program resulted in the killing of 1,206 individuals and enforced disappearance of 206 others, mostly activists. (The victims included 221 members of five progressive partylist organizations, now grouped under the Makabayan Coalition, 155 of them from Bayan Muna.)

That “Stop the Killings!” campaign had three important achievements:

1) It pressured the Arroyo government to allow the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Philip Alston, to visit the Philippines in 2006 and conduct on-the-ground investigations. Alston’s report concluded that state security forces were behind the EJKs and disappearances.

2) It impelled the Supreme Court, led by then Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, to convene a summit, “A Conspiracy of Hope,” on EJKs and enforced disappearances which produced the judicial institution of the writs of amparo and habeas data, in addition to the writ of habeas corpus.

3) The campaign led to the ground-breaking success – through the efforts of the victims’ parents, friends and human rights lawyers – in prosecuting and sentencing to life imprisonment of Arroyo’s favorite “butcher” general, Jovito Palparan Jr., for the abduction and disappearance in 2006 of former UP students Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño.

That campaign also caused a sharp drop in the incidences of EJKs, from the peaks of 194 in 2005 and 235 in 2006 to 100 in 2007 and 90 in 2008. However, the number of cases moved up again to 130 in 2009.

In the case of the Duterte government, as of Aug. 17, there have been 328 cases of extrajudicial killings or EJKs documented by the human rights watchdog Karapatan in the past four years. Of this total, 218 were committed before Duterte signed Executive Order 70 in December 2017, and 110 since then.

EO 70 created the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), chaired by Duterte with his national security adviser, former AFP chief Hermogenes Esperon Jr., as vice chair. It complements (or has absorbed) “Oplan Kapayapaan” (counterpart of Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya).

NTF-ELCAC has principally steered the campaign of vilification, red-tagging, harassment, filing of trumped-up charges against activists – and could be complicit, if not directly accountable, for the spate of EJKs in the last few years.

Note: Esperon chiefly supervised Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya I and II – described by Karapatan in its 2009 report as a “blueprint for terror and impunity” – as Philippine Army chief (2005-2006) and AFP chief (2006-2008). Now he supervises the implementation of EO 70 through NTF-ELCAC.

Signatures are now being collected in a drive, initiated by Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, to support a statement titled, “Stop the Killings! Justice for the Victims of EJK!” Importantly, it calls for a stop to the “red-tagging and vilification of activists, human rights defenders, and government critics” and independent investigations of the latest killings.

Specifically, it asks President Duterte to “denounce and order a stop to the killings… stop inciting the police, military and even ordinary civilians to commit such horrible acts.” The perpetrators of these killings must be held accountable and punished, it says, concluding: “Only in this way will the reign of tyranny and impunity end,”

There is also an open letter of 62 by civil society organizations to the 47 member-states of the UN Human Rights Council, dated Aug. 27, which expresses “grave concern over ongoing extrajudicial executions and other serious human rights violations [HRVs] in the context of the ‘war on drugs’ in the country.” It urges UNHRC member-states to “actively work” towards adopting a resolution [in its 46th meeting] establishing an independent international mechanism on and other HRVs in the Philippines since 2016 with the view of exacting accountability.

The Aktionsbundnis Menschenrechte-Philippinen (AMP), a group of seven major German church-based agencies and human rights organizations working with the German government and the European Union, urges their government to “speak up for ending impunity in the Philippines within the framework of diplomatic relations… for the continuation of the investigation mechanism in the Philippines in the framework of the UNHRC.”

Likewise, AMP urges the German government to support the human rights advocacies of Philippine CSOs at the EU and UN levels in face of the Duterte government’s “brutal crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society players… under the guise of counter-terrorism.”

A new factor facing the reprised Stop the Killings campaign is that President Duterte has, since 2017, taken a starkly hostile stance vis-à-vis the human rights community, both in the country and abroad – including the United Nations and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In 2017, after the ICC chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, announced she would conduct an examination of the EJKs related to his “war on drugs,” Duterte rejected the move, then unilaterally withdrew Philippine participation in the ICC. This move, however, hasn’t barred the continuation of the prosecutor’s examination since it was decided on while the Philippines was still in the ICC.

In that same year, Duterte spurned a request (similar to that of Alston in 2006) of UN Special Rapporteur on Extrjudicial Executions Agnes Callamard, who had called out his government on the EJK issue. He even publicly stated he would slap Callamard on the face should she come to the Philippines. After the recent killings, Callamard cried out through Twitter: “What will it take for these killings to stop? How much more sorrow, grief, pain can the [Filipino] people endure?… ENOUGH!”

In their letter to the UNHRC member-states, the CSOs point out that not one UN Special Procedures/Special Rapporteur country visit has been allowed by the Duterte government, “despite 14 outstanding visit requests.” It has not replied to the SP/SR communications since April 2019 — and even refused access into the country of UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michele Bachelet or her representatives; she has a mandate to submit to the UNHRC a comprehensive report on the human rights situation in the country. And after she submitted her report last June, the government rejected her recommendations pertaining to the killings, arbitrary detention, and “crackdown on civic space,” the civil society organizations say.

Despite these hazards, the way is wide open for the Stop the Killing campaign. With the initial encouraging broad response to the signature drive, given Duterte’s appearing overwhelmed and flummoxed by the many serious problems needing urgent solutions amidst the Covid-19 crisis – and with none of his campaign promises showing any sign of fulfillment – the government would be hard put to frustrate the campaign.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
August 29, 2020

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