Once defined simply as exemption from punishment, since the Cold War era impunity has taken on a primarily political meaning. It has come to refer to the immunity from prosecution of the worst state violators of human rights, whether in Latin America, Africa or Asia, as well as Europe and the United States.

The killing of political activists and journalists continues because of the culture of impunity in the Philippines, where, despite the existence of appropriate laws, only a very few killers of journalists and none so far of activists have been prosecuted.

So pervasive has it become that impunity is now described as a way of doing things that has not only become routine, but has also gained acceptability—at least among the most fanatical enemies of citizen protest and enterprise journalism.

The killing of non-combatants in Vietnam through the Central Intelligence Agency’s Operation Phoenix (1967 -1969) has been explained away and even justified in the name of anti-communist necessity by right-wing US politicians. Operation Phoenix has recently recaptured media attention as documents on the US conduct of the Vietnam War (1954-1975) are declassified, and its horrors discovered.

The US-conceived and assisted Operation Condor, which in several Latin American countries sanctioned the arrest, abduction, torture and assassination of persons for their political beliefs rather than for committing illegal acts, has similarly been justified as necessary to protect Latin American societies, among them Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia etc., from “subversion,” although the real aim was to assure continuing multinational access to the resources of those countries.

Operation Condor went so far as to assassinate former government officials, oppositionists, leftists and activists who had fled persecution in their home countries and taken up residence in Europe and even the United States. In that sense it globalized state terror, doing for capitalism what non-state actor Al Qaeda has been doing for Islamic fundamentalism.

The architects of the present policy of harassing, persecuting, abducting, torturing and assassinating political activists justify what they’re doing in the name of the same anti-communism that animated Phoenix and Condor, no matter how late in the day it may be. ( The Cold War ended in 1990, and don’t they themselves proclaim that communism is irrelevant, meaningless, and dead in the 21st century?)

The same missionary zeal that conveniently masked the greed for resources and markets which saw mass murder as justifiable in Vietnam and Latin America is evident in the most recent statements of this country’s leading security lights whether military or civilian. No doubt once they achieve the same levels of success inside the country, they too will do as Condor did—assassinate selected personalities in their sanctuaries abroad.

As dedicated as they may be to these ends, however, the struggle against impunity and state terror has also become globalized. It began in 1998 when a Spanish court ordered the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, the late dictator of Chile whose US-installed regime caused the torture and deaths of tens of thousands of dissenters and activists including US journalists and nuns. That court declared that crimes committed in any country may be tried in others.

Of relevance to the extra-judicial killings going on in this country and others is the establishment of the International Criminal Court. The Court was established by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court adopted on 17 July, 1998.

The Rome Statute is an international treaty, binding only on those States which formally express their consent to be bound by its provisions. These States then become “Parties” to the Statute. In accordance with its terms, the Statute entered into force on 1 July 2002, once 60 States had become Parties. One hundred and four states are now Parties.

Like the Bush government, the Arroyo regime is not a signatory to the Treaty, which has invited suggestions that it fears the prosecution of its officials for crimes against humanity, as the US does. The US has in fact justified its withdrawal from the Treaty by citing the case of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose extradition to Uruguay has been requested by the lawyer of the survivors of a victim of Operation Condor.

Kissinger was Secretary of State when that strategy was in place, and has also been implicated in the 1973 coup in Chile which put Pinochet in power. The US describes the request for the extradition of Kissinger as “absurd,” despite mounting evidence that he orchestrated Condor and supported right wing coups in Latin America while he was US Secretary of State and national security adviser to two US Presidents.

The Philippines’ being a non-signatory to the Rome Statute does not shut all doors to the prosecution of its officials who may be responsible for the current killings. As the case of Pinochet showed, the rapid changes in international law have, among other developments, allowed other states to prosecute their non-nationals for crimes against humanity.

Although the Permanent People’s Tribunal based in The Hague is not a state agency, since its founding in 1979 it has gained enough prestige for its findings to be credible. Its March 25 declaration that the Philippine government is responsible for the killing of political activists may not have the force of law, but does count in the court of international opinion.

It is in that court where the Arroyo regime has been taking a beating– among human rights groups like Amnesty International and the Asian Human Rights Council, in the United Nations, and among the state agencies of various countries including the US Senate, which has indirectly taken the US executive department to task for providing military aid to a government likely to be responsible for the ongoing harassment and murders of activists.

The globalization of state terror is being met by the globalization of the struggle against impunity. This explains why the Arroyo regime has earned a harvest of universal condemnation for the gross violations of human rights now taking place that it either refuses to stop, condones, encourages, or orchestrates.

Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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