PHILIPPINES: Subverted justice deprives protection of rights

The AHRC is publishing its 2008 annual human rights report on the Philippines. A pre-publication version of the report can be downloaded at

To illustrate how far the protection of human rights has been achieved, if at all, the 60th anniversary of the Universial Declaration for Human Rights on the International Human Rights Day is observed. In Philippine society in particular it is time to reflect on how Filipinos had been living their lives over the years, especially since the struggle from martial rule and the restoration of the then democratic regime.

In the struggle for the protection of civil, political and economic rights, the Filipinos found that they were trapped in the dilemma that the very institutions they were trying to get their redress from had been failing to protect them. It is not because these justice institutions lack mandates; but rather that they have been subverted, exploited due to political interference and are now lacking the political will to do their job.

At the height of extrajudicial killings of political and human rights activists in recent years, had there been no constant pressure from within the country and internationally it is likely the killings would have gone unnoticed. However, due to constant pressure legal remedies, for instance the writ of amparo, which provides judicial protection to persons experiencing threats to their lives, was made available. Unfortunately the victims have to fight legally to make this writ work.

The enactment of the writ of amparo by the Supreme Court was done to fill the gap between the lack of existing laws on matters of effective protection mechanism and also the ineffective implementation of the Witness Protection Security and Benefit Act (RA 6981), a law which is supposed to give protection to witnesses. The lack of protection to persons facing threats and to witnesses to allow them into testifying in court without being killed has, in fact, perpetrated the killings of hundreds of activists.

Though the number of deaths has dropped this year without this lack of protection being adequately addressed, it is likely the targeted killings of activists would once again take place as has been happening in recent days. The continuing threats made against political, human rights and labour activists; and the questionable procedures in the filing of charges on them in court, illustrates that certain persons and groups are being punished, legally or otherwise, for the work that they do.

This fact explains that the institutions of justice, who have an obligation to ensure the protection of rights, would have never exhausted their means; or they would have made themselves incapable of doing anything in the absence of any pressure. It is a scenario in which the State’s machinery has distanced itself from what is supposed to be their declared purpose to protect the needy.

Also, while this statement in being written, eight farmers seeking ownership of the land of President Gloria Macapal-Arroyo’s husband, Jose Miguel, in Negros Occidental, continued on their indefinite hunger strike, to put pressure on President Arroyo to ensure prompt distribution of the Arroyo lands. The action these farmers are taking is one of various forms of dissent and demand by most victims of human rights violation within a country that lacks any rational or legal remedies; and they hope at least their self sacrifice will add to the pressure so that their demands and grievances are noticed, if not met.

Thus, it appears that that the victims, apart from needlessly enduring the atrocities committed upon them, are forced to take various actions in order to obtain what is legally theirs. The extraordinary means that these people are taking are a result of the lack of effective and adequate resolutions available within the system of justice. The ordinary exercise of the duties of the State for the victims to assert their rights has become an uphill battle.

Given these realities in the country, it is but necessary for people, in particular those living abroad, to measure just how far protection of rights has gone and to deeply reflect on what is actually happening in the field apart from counting number of deaths, forced disappearances and arbitrary detentions. It is true that the number of deaths has sharply dropped. However, it could not be justified as the sole basis that human rights have improved as the government is trying to impress upon the international community. It should be the strength, effectiveness and adequacy of the State’s institution of justice to protect the right of the abused, aggrieved and that should have been the basis for the statements of the government.

However, today’s Philippine society is reminiscent of the Marcos’ regime. The farmer’s struggle for land reform speaks to the same struggle as the 13 farmers who died in the streets of the Mendiola in Manila, two decades ago. Like the landless farmers on Arroyo land, those who died have needless sacrificed their lives in order to have legal means by which they could own the land. But like the farmers in Hacienda Luisita, which is owned by the family of former President Corazon Aquino, the farmers of the Arroyo lands have also had to endure needless overly delayed legal battles and political interference in owning the land they till.

Not only does the law on the implementation of land reform face extinction; even legislations that are supposed to protect rights—the law against torture, enforced disappearances and the amendments to the witness protection law—actually never had any substantial progress in the legislative body. Still, the legislative body has become an institution which effectively denies the very people whom they represent from acquiring legal protection and remedies by enacting these laws. Even the provision of the Philippines’ Labor Code has not been amended and is the same that existed during Marcos years.

Like the law on amendments to labor and land reform, the enactment of laws that are supposed to protect human rights in accordance with the country’s obligations, are either needlessly delayed or are not seen as a priority by the legislators. They are persons who actually exist on their own rhetoric of how human rights and democracy should be understood. Their utter failure and disregard to pass into law the instruments to ensure protection of rights for their own people who have been abused and violated by the State’s security forces illustrates their utter disregard for the value of life and the protection of human rights of their people.

While the world and the people from the outside, sees the Philippines as being a member of the United Nation’s Human Rights council; as a country that upholds the ideal of democracy, the people whom this country governs looks at their own country in the different way.

The lack of legal remedies to the victims of extrajudicial killings; protection activist and witnesses facing threats; political interference and the subversion of legal process to promote the influential person’s interests and to prosecute those who are critical of them; and the continued failure to ensure distribution of lands to the landless farmers according to law, speaks of a false sense of the ideals of democracy that exists in the Philippine society today.

It is not the ideals of Rule of Law, Human Rights and Democracy itself that is at fault. It is the continuing failure to have those responsible for subverting these institutions of justice—by the partisan public officials and legislators, the police and the military, and the court’s incapability to perform duties expected from them by prosecuting those responsible for abuses; amongst others—that aggravates the lack of faith among the victims of human rights violation that remedies would be made available at all. It thus undermines the enjoyment of rights in the country.

The Asian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) Annual report on the human rights situation in the Philippines is focused along this line: a subverted justice, the mindset of passivity exploited by political interference and the lack of political will is what deprives the Filipinos of protection of rights they have long require.

The AHRC is publishing its 2008 annual human rights report on the Philippines. A pre-publication version of the report can be downloaded at

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-317-2008
Countries : Philippines,