Heralds of impunity

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A SIGNATORY to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Philippines has sent a delegation to Geneva, Switzerland to attend the second cycle of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the human rights situation of the Philippines since 2008 when it was last reviewed.

The May 29, 2012 review of Philippine compliance with the above covenants, and with its own commitment to implement 11 out of 17 recommendations by the member-States of the UN Human Rights Council in 2008, came a week after the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged UN member-states to “see through the Philippine government’s rhetoric and question the lack of progress on accountability over the past four years.”

Rhetoric has indeed been the stock- in- trade of every Philippine administration since 1946. In 2008, for example, among the then Arroyo administration’s commitments to improve the Philippine human rights situation was “to completely eliminate torture and extrajudicial killings” and “intensify efforts to carry out investigations and prosecutions on extrajudicial killings and punish those responsible” – even as it was encouraging the killings.

The harassment, abduction, enforced disappearance and murder of leftists, activists, and political dissidents by State actors had been taking place even before 1972, when Ferdinand Marcos placed the country under martial law and went on to stay in power for 14 years. But the martial law period witnessed a surge in these violations, primarily because their perpetrators were not only immune from prosecution, but, in the case of high-ranking police and military officers, were even rewarded with power, a share in the looting of the country, or both.

Since the end of the martial law regime the protection and enhancement of human rights has become a global issue, but in the Philippines umaThetHEhas been in the same order of absurdity as rolling a boulder up a steep mountainside only to have it roll down again and again because of a lethal mix of narrow political interests, ideological bias, flaws in the justice system, and the indifference if not the toleration of citizens desensitized by the violence of their own daily lives and made stupid by noontime TV shows.

Despite the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, on January 22, 1987, or less than a year later, a combined team of police and military forces fired at a farmers’ march on Malacañang, killing thirteen of the marchers and wounding others. No one was ever held accountable, despite a class suit filed by the survivors, and a government commission’s recommendation that the heirs be compensated.

The Mendiola Massacre was preceded by other incidents, among them the assassination of labor leader Rolando Olalia and student leader Lean Alejandro in October, 1986, or barely eight months after the Corazon Aquino administration came to power. As in the Mendiola Massacre case, no one has been prosecuted for the Olalia-Alejandro murders.

Both cases were the heralds of impunity, or exemption from punishment of even the vilest wrong-doers, in the post-Marcos period. The restoration of the institutions of democratic rule the EDSA mutiny of 1986 supposedly assured did not really happen in the area of human rights. Quite the opposite. Although in some respects signifying a break from the horrors of the martial law regime, in human rights the post- EDSA period was also their continuation.

The exemption from punishment of torturers and other military and police thugs was a given during the Marcos dictatorship, when dissenters of all kinds could be arrested at will, detained, tortured, and even murdered without anyone being held accountable. The violations of human rights after EDSA were driven primarily by the same martial law ideology of which the police and military were the enforcers. Through their allies in the courts, which in case after case dismissed complaints against and exonerated torturers and killers, the police and the military established a track record of impunity over nearly three decades.

The killings from year one of the first Aquino administration were the still intact police and military apparatus of repression’s way of warning not only revolutionaries, but even dissenters and reformists, that protest, dissent, activism, advocacy and any other attempt whether modest or far-ranging at changing Philippine society would cost them their lives.

The warning was a persistent echo during the administrations that followed Corazon Aquino’s, but most murderously during the nine-year administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who, like her predecessors Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada, never condemned extrajudicial killings, and even encouraged them by, in the most notorious, most appalling benchmark of her unlamented rule, singling out for praise then Army general Jovito Palparan during a State of the Nation Address.

By giving the police and military a free hand in dealing with the “insurgency,” Arroyo also left it to those damaged and damaging institutions to define who and what the “enemy” are, resulting in, among others, the listing of legal organizations including journalists’ groups among the “enemies of the state” and of their members in military orders of battle.

The result was a surge in extrajudicial killings in a supposedly democratic society. The killings were disturbing enough to call the attention of the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international groups – all of which were ignored by the Arroyo administration, which thought itself as immune from accountability as its minions in the police and the military were immune from prosecution by a corrupted justice system.

The second Aquino administration is in danger of replicating the vicious record of human rights violations of its predecessor, despite its claims at having “seriously” addressed such assaults on human rights as enforced disappearances. The key element that makes it probable is its commitment to a counter-insurgency strategy that, among other deceptions, cloaks in the language of “development” the profiling as enemy territory of some of the most impoverished communities in this poor country; the displacement of their residents; the sanctioning of arbitrary arrests and detention; and even the harassment of University of the Philippines students doing field work or sharing classroom knowledge with, as well as learning from, the people they’re supposed to serve.

But Mr. Aquino also has the opportunity to add to whatever legacy he can leave behind after 2016. He does have alternatives other than allowing the Commission on Human Rights to hold one more seminar the participants will immediately forget once it’s over.

He could declare as official policy unconditional opposition to all forms of human rights violations, and forthwith support that with a campaign to “seriously” prosecute those State actors, primarily military, guilty of those crimes. Maybe then this country can see at least a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel of human rights horrors it has had to traverse for nearly three decades despite EDSA. It’s not as if it were rocket science or brain surgery. But given the putrid human rights record of all administrations since 1946 in the Philippine theater of the absurd, no one should be holding his or her breath.

(BusinessWorld)

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