PHILIPPINES: Outgoing regime, unaddressed violations

The Philippines sees routine investigations on targeted killings, torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, all of which end up without enough evidence to prosecute the perpetrators. When prosecutions are initiated, those with the most guilt and evidence for prosecution are routinely excluded from criminal complaint. Court trials, time consuming and costly for victims, largely end with key perpetrators acquitted for their crimes. These are the Asian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) observations on the pattern of human rights violations, not only in 2015, but over the past ten years of documenting abuses, particularly those linked to the security forces.

To term these violations as ‘continuing’, would be superficial however, if not simplistic. It distracts from the fundamental question: why are these violations occurring in the first place? These violations, mostly targeted at the poor, vulnerable and marginalized sections of society, are routinely and widely reported in the country’s newspapers, radio and TV. So, why is it that those needing protection the most have no protection? In most cases, those who should be investigated, prosecuted and convicted, simply get away with their crimes and continue with their lives.

In the past, targeted attacks on human rights and political activists were orchestrated and equated as counter-insurgency measures. Strong condemnation, local and international, resulted in a drop in the number of killings in 2007. At present, there are similar attacks on indigenous people, with the same justification used by the same military establishment, under a different regime. Under the Aquino administration, the killings, torture and abduction of victims are ‘economic oriented’.

The state’s economic policy—exploration of mineral resources, opening plantations to export crops, etc. in countryside—have led to massive displacement of indigenous people. In Mindanao, a combination of aerial attacks and foot soldiers, on the pretext of pursuing rebels, has displaced villagers in upland communities. Those who oppose these incursions—community leaders, NGOs assisting tribal groups, villagers officials—are executed on the pretext of being rebels. In other words, the military is equating a person legitimately demanding the protection of his and others’ rights as being an armed rebel.

These violations are often a byproduct of the state’s security and economic policies. While the military has been in a state of protracted war against rebels and militants for some time, military officers have now also become ‘private security forces’ for big corporations. By law, the state is obligated to protect the investments of corporations. This makes the deployment of military forces in upland communities justifiable, transforming the behaviour of the security forces to protect corporations, not villagers. Moreover, there are no repercussions for the violations committed by the soldiers. Those who oppose them are routinely arrested, detained, tortured and killed, and all this is justified by saying the opponents were rebels.

When the state is complicit in human rights abuse, where do prevention, redress and remedy fit in? This can be understood by examining how investigations and prosecutions are conducted. 
The police, whose chief is appointed by the President, investigates cases of violations by default. In most cases that are political in nature, like the killing of indigenous people, the ordinary investigation process does not seem to operate. It is the prosecutors and their superior—the secretary of justice—who selectively prosecutes cases, routinely excluding those who are guilty. The AHRC has documented numerous cases of such actions taken by the police and prosecutors.

The solution to the protracted, ongoing, and becoming routine human rights violations by security forces requires both political and institutional measures. When Aquino assumed power in 2010, his agenda was to reaffirm the protection of rights. To this end, he promised justice to the families of the Maguindanao massacre. He will step down from office a few months from now, in June 2016, and his promise is yet to be fulfilled.

Aquino assumed office from the widely unpopular President Arroyo, whose regime was either equal to or worse than that of Marcos when it came to human rights violations. As in the case of the late Cory Aquino’s regime, Aquino has failed to alter pervasive political and institutional violations. Human rights laws are not enforced effectively, and never result in punishment. The Anti-Torture Act of 2009 has not convicted a single perpetrator. Soldiers and policemen involved in gross violations of rights, like retired general Jovito Palparan, continue to roam free.

To date, both political change—from Aroyo to Aquino—and institutional change—from laws lacking protection of rights to more laws—have failed to alter the pervasive violation of rights existing in the Philippines. Not only are those in need of protection left alone, but the state is now committing violations as a result of its security and economic policies, which will go unpunished. It is time for the Philippines to examine how it can implement the laws protecting human rights and punish the perpetrators.