PHILIPPINES: Exposing witnesses to risk is systemically entrenched, not a mere ‘lack of funds’ 

August 21, 2009

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

PHILIPPINES: Exposing witnesses to risk is systemically entrenched, not a mere ‘lack of funds’

“Lack of funds” is what Senior State Prosecutor Leo Dacera, head of the government’s Witness Protection Programme (WPP), described as the reasons why witnesses to extrajudicial killings are “vulnerable to threats or bribes, (or) intended to have them recant their testimony or simply not appear in court”. This is how he explained the problem to a foreign journalist’s body who had written a report about witnesses being threatened.

The prosecutor’s reasoning somehow dealt with financial and logistical realities of the program. However, if it was intended to explain why the programme is failing it is narrow and simplistic. There is no assurance at all that even if the legislative and executive branch allocated ‘adequate funds’, that the threats, the harassment and the attacks against witnesses would not happen. Any rational person would agree that the problem cannot be solved by merely allocating funds alone. This prosecutor could not disagree.

This type of reasoning perpetuates the reasoning of the bureaucrats and the government agencies that a poor country, like the Philippines, could not be expected to have achieved high standards on protection of human rights. This type of government should be able to understand this in the same manner that they expect the Filipino people to understand this. Their limitations should be accepted, not condemned.

This reasoning and excuse has since been dominant. Even the journalist body who was interviewing this prosecutor had also believed, and had in fact, parroted the predicament of this prosecutor. They even listed this as one of their recommendations that the fund required by the WPP should be granted. However, there was no question, as to why the legislative body itself has failed to do this for many years. The real question is as to why they even needed to be asked.

But even if the WPP would be allocated with adequate funds, there can never be assurance at all that witnesses would no longer be subjected to threats or attack or that the perpetrators would be prosecuted at once. This prosecutor, the journalist who had interviewed him, the people who read their explanations, the families of the dead and even the witnesses themselves could not be convinced that by merely funding the WPP it would produce a positive ‘domino effect’. They would and could not tell. Nobody could.

The predicament of the witnesses requires, not merely ‘funding’ nor even introducing a piece of legislation that would strengthen it. Their problem, like that which the families of the dead have continuously faced, had been aggravated and is symptomatic of the existing problems in the administration of justice in the country. The continuing threats and attacks on witness are not merely due to the limitations of funding but rather the intricate problems of the functioning of the country’s criminal justice institution from its very investigation and enforcement by the police, the prosecution of cases by prosecutors and the administration of justice by judges in hearing court cases.

Apart from the legislative’s failure, by not mentioning also that the enormous delays of cases in courts, poor investigations by policemen frustrating the possibility of the effective prosecution, amongst others, are among the reasons why witnesses do not come forward. Why would the witnesses come forward to testify if they themselves know full well the policemen had poorly investigated the case they would testify to? A witness who had known that the policemen either committed the murder, or that the perpetrators works for him would certainly not testify out of fear. This has nothing to do with funding.

While those implementing the WPP deserve appreciation, it is unfortunate that they themselves, typical of bureaucrats and State agents, had prevented its progress by not exposing the frailties of the government’s institution of justice they are part of when it comes to the plight of witnesses.

To be more realistic, Prosecutor Dacera, as head of the WPP, should ask why one of his colleagues in central Mindanao, who heads the WPP would have to “travel with four armed bodyguards of his own.” Why do lawyers and judges have to carry firearms, or employ bodyguards in performing their duties? This is also symptomatic to the widespread loose firearms, and the lack of firearms control due to failure in law enforcement. Gunmen had been exploiting this to arm themselves to murder their targets. This should have been an elementary law enforcement duty but the policemen could even hardly implement firearms control.

Thus, regardless of how much money the WPP would get if other areas in the functioning of the system, like the law enforcement would not be addressed, it is doomed to failure.

A country, that claims to be democratic and civilized, but fails or is unwilling to introduce reforms for the better functioning of its programme–for instance WPP–is having a government which ensures any remedies available will be meaningless.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-175-2009
Countries : Philippines,