PHILIPPINES: An improved criminal justice system is key to upholding human rights

The Philippines in recent times has been plagued by widespread and systematic violations of human rights, which include unabated extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances, among others, that are occurring in an increasingly unexplained fashion. The sense of frustration and distrust of the victims and their families that they will ever attain justice is the result of flawed and defective policing and judicial systems. The possibility for victims to seek redress and justice is often denied due to poor police investigations, a non-functioning witness protection programme, delays in the adjudication of cases and the absence of enabling laws.

While the government claims to uphold and protect human rights, its actions do not live up to this claim. The government does not come close to providing what is required and urgently needed. How can justice be served, for instance, if investigations are flawed and defective? There have been cases where the police have declared cases solved without having conducted thorough investigations. They are unable to protect or afford security to witnesses and those facing threats but instead put the blame on the victims for not cooperating with them. Once the police are able to identify the suspects and file charges in court, regardless of whether the suspects are arrested or evidence they have gathered can be used effectively in court, they consider the case solved. It is on this flawed premise that the police measure their performance and a high crime solution rate.

Police investigations are an extremely important factor in seeking justice and redress. In the Philippines, however, poor and incomplete police investigations have become a factor as to why seeking justice is extremely difficult and cases do not succeed in court. A number of cases have been recorded where victims have not been able to even file charges in court as a result of these failures by the police. Not only are the police accused of such failings, however, but in some cases the police themselves have been accused of either being involved or of conspiring to commit gross human rights violations.

Although the police are among the essential pillars of the criminal justice system, the experience of human rights victims confirms that it is impossible to seek justice and redress if the current practice of the police is allowed to continue or be tolerated. In reality, the moral and investigative credibility of the police towards the victims to deliver justice and protect human rights is waning if not already lost. This failure was manifested by the number of task forces it created to investigate cases of extrajudicial killings. One such body is Task Force Usig, which has been unable to obtain conclusive findings to identify and arrest perpetrators and warrant a strong case in court.

Even if cases are filed in court though, victims are still confronted with the common problem of long delays in the adjudication of their cases. In the Philippines, the poorly resourced and understaffed prosecution offices and court branches are unable to effectively perform their duties due to heavy workloads. It is extremely alarming though that the government has not done enough to improve these institutions and make them more effective. This neglect creates and nurtures a negative perception and deep distrust towards the prosecution system among the country’s citizens.

Not only are the victims confronted with the dilemma of poor police investigations and delays in the adjudication of their cases, but they also have to endure threats to their lives while seeking justice. They themselves have to ensure their security given the inability of the prosecution system to do so, in particular the Department of Justice (DoJ). Thus, a mixture of poor investigations, delays in the adjudication of cases and the absence of protection adds to the threats that the victims and their families feel and denies them the possibility to seek justice and redress. Therefore, on what basis can the government claim to uphold protection for human rights if it is unable to adequately address these basic issues? The increasingly alarming cases of violations and abuses have long been traced to these problems.

The Philippine government perhaps believes that it gained credibility for the protection of human rights with its election to seats on two main organs of the United Nations, the Human Rights Council and the Economic and Social Council, as the requirement for election to these bodies is for the state to have upheld the “highest standards and norms” of human rights. The government’s election, however, does not exonerate it from its bleak human rights record and poor implementation of the international human rights covenants and conventions, in particular Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which calls for the “implementation of rights.” The ongoing deterioration of human rights in the country clearly speaks though of the complete absence of remedies for victims whose rights are violated by legislative and judicial means.

On what basis can the government claim that it religiously complies with the provisions of the ICCPR and other international human rights instruments when it cannot effectively and adequately implement the Witness Protection, Security and Benefit Act (RA 6981)? Victims who survive atrocities, families of the deceased, witnesses and those facing threats are being killed or continuously attacked or harassed while the government, meanwhile, has not done enough to effectively implement this law. Not only existing laws are not being implemented effectively, however, for there are also no laws to prosecute perpetrators of gross abuses of rights, in particular torture and enforced disappearance. On what grounds, once again, can the government claim that it upholds protection and respect for human rights when domestic legislation as required by the ICCPR of the state party are not acted upon? Often what the government has done is to please the international community by its rhetoric, but, in reality, victims and their families are systematically denied the possibility of redress.

Cases of torture and enforced disappearance have become a way of life in the Philippines. Torture victims, whether their torture was politically motivated or not, do not have a venue where they can file complaints for the violations committed upon them. The police, military and other government security forces are committing brutal acts of torture with impunity. They cannot be prosecuted because the act of torture itself is not a crime in the country. Although the Constitution prohibits the use of torture and the government is a state party to the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), no venue or mechanism exists where victims can seek redress and justice. Although there is a law that provides compensation for torture, the absence of an enabling domestic law on torture, which defines the crime itself and provisions for compensation, makes it difficult for victims to obtain compensation. In practice, victims do not obtain compensation.

Similarly, the absence of an enabling law on enforced disappearances makes it difficult for the families and relatives of the disappeared to locate their loved ones. The police do not conduct investigations on disappearance cases unless dead bodies are recovered; and even if they do provide assistance, they often refuse to cooperate with the families of the disappeared in instances where they are accused of holding disappeared victims in their custody. Consequently, families of the disappeared frequently have no options but to monitor the media, hoping there are reports of the recovery of a body or the whereabouts of their relatives, dead or alive.

Can the government claim to uphold human rights when, in fact, its inaction to ensure the enactment of domestic enabling laws results in the systematic violation of rights? The absence of a mechanism to seek redress is actually the result of the government’s failure to comply with international human rights conventions and covenants.

On December 10, the international community will observe Human Rights Day. In the Philippines, survivors and the families of victims of human rights violations that occur on a daily basis deserve clear explanations as to why the government should not be condemned for this systematic failure. It must also give a sufficient explanation why it should not be expelled from sitting at the table of the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Economic and Social Council given its bleak human rights records. In no circumstances can a country like the Philippines with such a poor human rights record be allowed to continue sitting on these U.N. bodies. It dishonours the very reason why these bodies were created.

The government must be held liable for its obvious failure to implement the provisions of Article 2 of the ICCPR and to human rights conventions and covenants to which it is a state party. There cannot be genuine protection and implementation of human rights unless the Philippine government’s criminal justice system—the police, prosecution and the judiciary —is improved. Unless the government has the political will is able to seriously improve its criminal justice system and the rule of ;aw, there cannot be genuine implementation and protection of human rights. Any claims by the government to have upheld human rights are meaningless for the victims.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) calls upon the international community to once again register its unity and participate in the human rights movement that advances the protection of human rights and democracy of the Filipino people. This is a critical time for Filipinos, and the international community must make its presence felt in that they are one with Filipino people by helping to expose these continuing atrocities and the excessive violations of rights occurring within the country on a daily basis. Unless the government is held accountable for their acts and the victims are given the possibility to seek redress, there cannot be genuine implementation of human rights. The failure of the government to effectively arrest this serious and critical situation is dragging the country towards the brink of a human rights crisis and disaster.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-306-2006
Countries : Philippines,