PHILIPPINES: Torture law nearing approval is an obligation long overdue
While the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) welcomes the development that the proposed law on torture is nearing its approval following the bicameral session of the Senate and the House of Representatives it must also be said that they, the lawmakers, have for over two decades frustrated numerous torture victims in their attempts to obtain legal redress by delaying it.
Under the Philippine's legislative system, before a final draft of the law is approved, a bicameral session is held between the two chambers as each of them would always have their own version of any proposed law. This stage is already done and the local NGOs described the final version as "robust in substance". Both chambers, however, would have to ratify the final version, which they have yet to do, before it is submitted to the President for her signature.
Therefore, unless the two chambers themselves deliberately delay and fail to ratify the final version; or, the President, for some reason, exercises her power of veto, it is likely that the law on torture will be enacted. However, there is no escaping the failure of the country's lawmakers over a period of two decades to ratify this law despite the fact that freedom from torture itself is a Constitutional right. This is something they should have done a long time ago. To have this law passed deserves recognition, but its delay must also be mourned.
The Filipino people have meagre reason to be elated by this development. In fact, the lawmakers could also be held at fault for the incarceration of the hundreds, if not thousands of torture victims who had been deprived of remedies. They are persons who have been convicted or held for trial over charges taken by way of torture all over their country during the past two decades. Some of them, like the Abadilla Five have since been fighting for their innocence for an exceptional 13 years.
It is these lawmakers, many of whom are detached from absorbing the real needs of their constituents that should realise that it is they who owe a lot to their constituents and not the other way around. Why, therefore, should they be thanked now for something that they should have done years ago? Should this law finally be passed it is something that is expected from them. Rather than expect praise they should be explaining to the people they supposedly represent why it has taken them so long.
Unfortunately the enactment of a law does not guarantee the end of the police and the military's practice of torture in investigating cases. The Philippines has had the reputation of ratifying international human rights instruments, enacting good domestic laws, but are largely poor in implementing them which often results in the dissatisfaction of the victims. Any law would only have meaning if victims have confidence, after being satisfied of the legal proceedings in seeking remedies they sought, that it would produce something satisfactory. It is this that the meaning of any law is built upon. But even the government's system of criminal justice has yet to build on this very notion.
Take the example of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL), a law mandating the distribution of farm land to landless tenants. This law has not satisfied the beneficiaries. Farmers seeking ownership to lands are killed. The landed elite, some of whom are sitting in Congress as lawmakers, have been able to frustrate the implementation of the land reform law ensuring that huge tracts of farm lands remain the property of wealthy landlords.
Therefore, the Filipino people will just have to wait and see whether or not the implementation of this domestic law on torture, once enacted, would effectively address the problem of impunity and the lack of remedies for torture victims. Although this is remarkable, as it now legally binds the State to protecting this right, it is also premature to presume that this piece of legislation would eradicate the endemic and systematic practice of torture, which is perceived as an indispensable means to investigate cases.