US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is concluding a two-day visit to the Philippines today, November 13. The US- based human rights monitoring group Human Rights Watch has urged Mrs. Clinton to press Mrs. Arroyo to prosecute those responsible for extra-judicial killings (EJKs). Philippine-based human rights and activist groups have also challenged Mrs. Clinton to take up the same issue with Mrs. Arroyo.

We don’t know if the killings have been discussed or will be taken up today by the two ladies. The Visiting Forces Agreement and US security concerns are widely believed to be at the top of Mrs. Clinton’s agenda. But we can assume that the VFA’s remaining in place despite demands for its renegotiation and even scuttling has long been assured during lower-level discussions, and that Mrs. Clinton’s visit would only confirm it.

As for the May elections, Mrs. Arroyo’s finally meeting with US President Barack Obama last August — and a most amiable host Obama was, indeed — seems to have been premised on her pledge that they will be held. That pretty much explains why the Arroyo regime is frantically looking around for a way other than extending her term for Mrs. Arroyo to remain in power beyond 2010, including running for Congress or for Vice President.

Getting Mrs. Arroyo to prosecute those responsible for the killings is in the same category of wishful thinking as hopes for the eradication of government corruption. If the killings were (or are still) government policy, prosecuting the low-level military brutes responsible could open a Pandora’s box of revelations of high-level Cabinet involvement, and undermine the much-needed support of the generals for the administration candidates in the May elections. The US presumably understands these imperatives of realpolitik and would not compel Mrs. Arroyo to undermine herself.

In any event, the argument that the killings were (or still are) government policy has been validated by the escalation of their number in 2001, when Mrs. Arroyo came to power. With over a thousand victims of abductions, enforced disappearances, torture and murders from their ranks, left-wing political and human rights activists have borne the brunt of a policy of silencing “enemies of the state” whom the military claims are part of the political infrastructure of the New People’s Army. The number of EJKs has declined since 2007, but primarily because of the attention of international human rights NGOs, the United Nations, and the European Union, although attacks on, and the killing of journalists are continuing at practically the same levels.

International opinion does matter as far as human rights and other issues are concerned, but US opinion weighs more heavily on Philippine governments, which have always relied on US military and economic aid as well as political support. While the United States has made respect for human rights a condition of its engagement with other countries since the 1970s, it hasn’t always observed that principle — or, to put it in another way, it has observed that principle only when its strategic and economic interests are involved. In contrast with its outspoken use of the human rights card against, say, China, only gently will the US State Department mention the killings to Mrs. Arroyo.

If the killings were taken up at all, it would have been with the utmost civility on the part of Mrs. Clinton. The Philippines is supposed to be an important US ally because of “special relations” and its geographical location. But it’s also because it’s “easy,” in the sense that a loose woman’s easy. In fact the US has gotten what it wants even before it asked for it, as in September 2001 when Mrs. Arroyo pledged total support to the Bush “war on terror”. Despite a Constitutional ban on foreign troops and military bases, US troops and facilities have been ensconced in Mindanao since then, as part of the US policy of forward deployment in areas where its interests may be threatened.

Mrs. Clinton’s office issues a yearly human rights report documenting both compliance and non-compliance by various states with international human rights standards. It has used that document to excoriate its political, military and economic rivals such as China and Russia, as well as to extract concessions from weaker states. In making it seem as if human rights were a US concern superior to its strategic and economic interests, the US has emerged, for many all over the world, as their champion. It is certainly the champion of those Burmese who’re fighting the junta, for example — although the bad news is that the Obama government is open to engagement with the junta despite its putrid human rights record.

The US human rights record has itself been far from perfect. In a May 2009 Report, the United Nations Human Rights Council described that record as “deplorable.” A report by international law professor Philip Alston — yes, it’s the same Philip Alston who did that devastating report on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines — noted three areas in which “significant improvement is necessary if the US Government is to match its actions to its stated commitment to human rights and the rule of law.”

The first area has to do with the imposition of the death penalty. The US is the only Western country that still has capital punishment. The Alston Report says that the current processes through which the death penalty is imposed must be reformed to prevent the execution of innocent people, which has in fact happened in several cases. In Alabama and Texas, where the death penalty is in force, Alston noted a “lack of urgency about the need to reform glaring criminal justice flaws” which have led to the execution of the innocent.

The second area Alston mentioned has to do with the need to “provide greater transparency into law enforcement, military and intelligence operations that result in potentially unlawful deaths” domestically.

Third, continued Alston, the US needs to assure “greater accountability for potentially unlawful deaths in its international operations.”

It is in those international operations — read Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (where the US is combating Al Qaeda and the Taliban) — where “transparency failures are far more acute.” The US, said Alston, has not kept track of civilian deaths in those operations. In addition, and perhaps more significantly, the US has “refused to disclose the legal basis for targeted killings conducted through drone attacks on the territory of other States, or to identify any safeguards in place to reduce collateral civilian casualties and ensure that the (US) Government has targeted the correct person.”

Alston was referring to the killing of alleged Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan through the use of unmanned but lethally-armed aircraft known as “drones.” An article in the New Yorker magazine issue of October 26, 2009 (“The Predator War”) points out that the assassinations of alleged leaders of terrorist groups by the Central Intelligence Agency through the use of drones may not have any legal basis. Drone attacks have also killed civilians including women and children, and at times have targeted the wrong persons. And yet the killings are continuing, with the Obama administration authorizing more of them in Pakistan in the last nine months than former President George W. Bush did in three years.


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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