I’m sure they didn’t consult each other. But in an uncanny demonstration of the truth that regime minds think alike, within two days of each other the Speaker of the House and the Secretary of Justice used the same metaphor in dismissing Philip Alston’s April 29, 2009 follow- up report to the UN Human Rights Council.
On May 10, a day after the 2009 report was made public, Prospero Nograles dismissed a call from some party list members of Congress to expel retired general Jovito Palparan from the House of Representatives, and urged them to instead look into the extra- judicial killings (EJK) in Davao.
As one reporter put it, Nograles was saying that the party list groups were “barking up the wrong tree,” by which he meant they should “redirect their energies” from Palparan to Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who’s been widely accused of at least ignoring the killing of petty and suspected criminals including street children in that city.
Even as Nograles’ statements was making the front pages, Raul Gonzalez was telling reporters that “we”—meaning the Arroyo government– should “just ignore” the report.
“We cannot keep on stopping every time a dog barks. What we should do is just do our best to perform our tasks that are assigned to us within the limits of our authority and power,” said Gonzalez.
The Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions visited the Philippines at the invitation of the Philippine government in 2007 to look into the killing of political activists, journalists, and suspected criminals.
During that visit Alston met with senior officials of the Arroyo regime including high- ranking police and military officials, members of Congress, the Melo Commission, the Philippine National Police’s Task Force Usig, the Chief Justice and other members of the judiciary, and representatives of civil society as well as of the MILF and MNLF, among others.
In a February 7, 2007 press conference he called before he left the country, Alston specifically mentioned meeting Rodrigo Duterte, whose watch as mayor of Davao City has been distinguished not only by the low crime rate in that city, but also by the number of EJKs allegedly perpetrated by the so-called Davao Death Squad.
Alston made several observations and recommendations, among them the need for Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to—
1. instill in the military a sense of the seriousness of the allegations that it is responsible for most of the killings of political activists (Alston alleged that the AFP was “in a state of denial.”);
2. restore the systems of military and police accountability to civilian authority that have been eroded during her watch;
3. strengthen the witness protection program;
4. make it clear that there is political space for legal leftist groups in place of the implication that their members deserve elimination; and
5. re-evaluate the counter-insurgency policy that has resulted in the assassination of many political activists from legal groups.
Since then Alston has been one of the Arroyo regime’s pet hates. Gonzalez at one point referred to Alston—a distinguished professor of international law—as “nothing more than a muchacho,” or houseboy, even as his boss, Mrs. Arroyo, was making all sorts of noises to convince the international community that the killing of political activists was not national policy. Gonzalez’ comparing Alston to a barking dog was thus no surprise, given the Gonzalez propensity for insulting regime critics that has so endeared him to sound-byte seeking reporters. (For example, last March Gonzalez told the New York- based Committee to Protect Journalists to “jump in the lake.”)
Nograles’ reaction was on the other hand understandable, Duterte being his long-time and continuing rival in the politics of Davao City. But he also has a point. As non-political as they may be, the Davao EJKs have steadily increased in number since 1998. The 2009 Alston report notes that the killings have worsened rather than abated since his 2007 visit, with one victim being killed almost every day, from 116 in 2007 to 269 in 2008.
The Davao killings have to be addressed, among other reasons because they can spread to other cities. Alston has recommended that Duterte give up his supervisory powers over the local police and the abolition of the “watch list” of petty criminals that barangay officials are required to submit to the police. (Duterte has agreed to give up supervision over the police, but the watch list has not been abolished.)
But if Nograles has a point as far as the Davao EJKs are concerned, he hasn’t as far as his implication is concerned that addressing the killing of political activists is misplaced. The killing of political activists has never stopped– despite Alston’s 2007 report, despite the alarm expressed by Amnesty International, the Asian Human Rights Council, and even by the US State Department (all of which agreed that responsibility for EJKs and the killing of journalists could be laid mostly at the door of the Philippine military and police).
The killings did abate after 2007, after Mrs. Arroyo declared it a policy to stop EJKs. But this year 16 EJKs have occurred, the most heinous being the March abduction, torture and killing of Davao school teacher Rebelyn Pitao, whose only offense was that of being the daughter of a New People’s Army commander.
Meanwhile, if past events are any guide—the number of EJKs jumped in 2007, an election year when activists associated with left- wing party list groups were particularly targeted—2010 could witness more politically- driven EJKs.
As urgent as the Davao killings and the killing of journalists may be, the killing of political activists is equally crucial in that they have to stop as an indication, as the 2007 Alston Report said, that there’s space in Philippine politics for the political pluralism that gives democracy its substance. Ignoring these killings—and worse, the Alston reports—will guarantee not only their continuing, but also the steady erosion of what remains of Philippine democracy.
The barking of vigilant dogs—whether up a tree or at the gate—does serve a purpose, even if other dogs merely whine for bones.