PHILIPPINES: Philippines government must expose emerging army and police links to activists’ killings

The arrest of a suspect in the killing of Fr William Tadena has given a little emotional relief and glimpse of hope to the relatives of human rights defenders and political activists killed during recent weeks in the Philippines. If media reports that Tadena’s killers were hired and have links to the police and military are true, then this is also a direct challenge to the earlier accusation by Northern Luzon Command Chief Lt. Romeo Dominguez that communist rebels were responsible. Much yet remains to be done to satisfy relatives and a doubtful public that justice will be obtained.


Recently, President Gloria Arroyo ordered the police to act on hired killers without delay, and check the proliferation of loose firearms. This order came after the killing of former Congressman Henry Lanot on April 13. An inter-agency task force has been comprised in response to his murder. The speedy reaction to the ex-congressman’s killing, by contrast to those of human rights defenders and the government’s political opponents, speaks to the unequal application of law in the Philippines, about which the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has already raised concerns. Whereas considerable government resources are mobilised and used to track the killers of an establishment figure, the situation for ordinary people is altogether different. It is right of the government to take swift action on Lanot’s death. But the same must be afforded the 18 human rights and political activists killed since January this year, and also labour leader Edwin Bargamento, of the National Federation of Sugar Cane Workers in Visayas. Bargamento was killed on the same day as Lanot, yet the absence of a determined response on the part of the authorities to his murder again reveals this difference in treatment. He and the other victims of killings whose cases have not been properly addressed were all ordinary poor people who need the same kind of government action to ensure investigations, arrests and prosecution of perpetrators as has been directed towards the case of the ex-congressman.


Of particular concern are the persistent links between hired killers and the police and military in the Philippines. These links are deliberately obscured through statements by the authorities that victims of killings have been communist sympathisers killed by insurgents. When these allegations are exposed as lies to cover-up the connection between state officers and paid murderers, it does nothing to improve the credibility of these agencies. Despite the political changes of recent decades and aspirations of ordinary people in the Philippines, that credibility continues to be strained. The army and police force are still tainted by the practices of arbitrary detention, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings of political opponents–many of them in the name of anti-communist counter insurgency operations–which they developed during the 1970s.


In the 1980s the new Philippines government committed itself to upholding human rights principles. Among those are the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it ratified in 1987. Central to the Covenant is a commitment to address cases of extrajudicial killings and other violations of the right to life through the provision of resources for speedy and effective investigation and prosecution of perpetrators, and compensation and rehabilitation of victims. As the government of the Philippines is keen to be seen as advancing human rights among its Southeast Asian neighbours it should be mindful of how the Covenant must be applied at home. The Covenant does not envisage the making of public assurances and the establishment of a national commission on human rights. Although these are to be welcomed, the Covenant lays down in hard terms the need for institutional changes–in the police, prosecution and judiciary–to guarantee rights.


The government of the Philippines now needs to take a number of steps to stop the trend in killings of human rights defenders and political activists since January of this year.


First, these cases should be included among those that the president has ordered be urgently addressed as planned killings by hired murderers. Although there may be progress in individual cases, like that of Fr Tadena, this series of killings must be brought under the overall policy response to hired killings initiated after April 13.


Secondly, the office of the Ombudsman for the Military and National Police Commission (Napolcom) should conduct its own investigation regarding allegations linking the police and military to these killings. It must also act on principles of command responsibility and hold senior officers responsible where they have failed to prevent killings, or have failed to identify, arrest and prosecute perpetrators.


Thirdly, the Armed Forces of the Philippines must retract pronouncements branding victims, human rights organisations and others as communist sympathisers or fronts, and refrain from making further statements to this effect. The government must take responsibility to ensure this. The purpose of these allegations, genuine or otherwise, is to jeopardise the investigations, permit continued impunity for killings, and deny justice to victims and their families. This cannot be allowed to continue.


Fourthly, the Department of Justice must have the National Bureau of Investigation take over all cases and provide protection to witnesses.


Fifthly, the Commission on Human Rights must publicly condemn these killings and violence without delay. It can initiate its own inquiries and also coordinate with the bureau of investigation. It should recommend appropriate measures to the president with reference to the government’s obligations under international human rights standards, specifically the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


Finally, the president should go beyond the order to crackdown on hired killers, and order a special investigation into the role that they are playing in the murders of human rights and political activists apparently in connivance with the police and military. Taken with the above measures, such an order would send a firm message that no more of these killings will be tolerated.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-42-2005
Countries : Philippines,
Campaigns : Stop extra-judicial killings in the Philippines
Issues : Extrajudicial killings,