Impunity in the PhilippinesFrontline November 21, 2009
Brian Campbell of International Labor Rights Forum writes about the reign of extrajudicial execution, torture and enforced disappearance in the Philippines. A counterinsurgency campaign by the Philippine military targets leftist activists, human rights defenders, labour leaders and clergymen.
According to the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, an independent government body tasked with protecting human rights in the Philippines, there had been a resurgence of human rights violations: killings, summary executions, enforced disappearances and torture. Between 2007 and 2008, the CHR identified over 142 cases of extrajudicial killings of leftist activists, human rights defenders, labour leaders, and clergymen – accused by the military of supporting a forty-year-long communist insurgency.
According to Karapatan, a leading human rights organisation in the Philippines, more than a thousand activists were killed since Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took office in 2001, with more than thirty-four deaths this year. Most recently, Cecilio Lucero, a Catholic priest and human rights defender, was assassinated in September. Lucero had been the director of the human rights desk at the social action centre of the local diocese.
After visiting the Philippines in early 2007, Philip Alston – the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions – reported that the military was responsible for the dramatic rise in killings. Accusing the military of being in a state of denial, Alston pointed to its counterinsurgency program, where activists were accused of supporting the communist party, and then systematically hunted down. According to Alston, activists were killed following a campaign of individual vilification by the military and that the strategy was designed to instil fear of the military in the community.
In an effort to head off the growing local and international criticism of the human rights record, President Arroyo appointed Jose Melo – a retired supreme court justice – to chair a commission to investigate the spike in extrajudicial killings and the allegations that the military was behind the killings. According to the president, the commission would be the government’s sole voice on the issue of extrajudicial killings.
After several months of investigation, the commission released its preliminary report in early 2007 with evidence linking the military to at least some of the killings. Noting that “only a group with certain military capabilities can succeed in carrying out an orchestrated plan of eliminating its admitted enemies,” the commission found that “the likelihood… of violence increases after senior military officials label those organisations as communist fronts and ‘enemies of the state.’” The commission stopped short of implicating the whole military leadership, but, described disturbing statistics showing that killings increased dramatically wherever Major General Jovito Palparan was in command.
When Palparan was in Oriental Mindoro from 2001 to 2003, Karapatan documented thirty-eight cases of extrajudicial killings and five incidents of enforced disappearances. In Eastern Visayas in 2005, where he was the battalion commander, Karapatan documented twenty-five killings and twelve abductions. From 2005 to 2006, when he headed the seventh infantry battalion of the army, Karapatan reported seventy-five killings and forty-two disappearances in central Luzon. The Melo Commission called for the immediate investigation of General Palparan, in its final report to the president in November 2007.
Since then, witnesses came forward to point fingers at General Palparan. In one recent case, the Manalo brothers – two brothers who had been abducted by the military but managed to escape – successfully petitioned the court for a writ of amparo to provide them protection from the military after positively identifying General Palparan from the military camp where they were tortured. When granting the writ, the court of appeals found that General Palparan was directly involved in the abduction of the brothers. The supreme court upheld the lower court’s ruling in Secretary of National Defence vs. Manalo brothers, prompting lawmakers in the United Opposition to renew calls for investigation.
Yet, despite the growing body of evidence that General Palparan, who sat among the military’s highest ranks, maybe responsible for the rise in killings since 2001 in areas under his command, the Philippine government has taken no steps to open a full investigation. When the Melo Commission questioned the heads of the police and the military about ongoing investigations into Palparan, neither the military nor the police believed that they had the responsibility to investigate him. In fact, General Esperon, then head of the military, stated that while the military has authority to open an investigation, “to investigate General Palparan during the time when he was neutralising the NPA [New Peoples’ Army, Communist Party of the Philippines] would have been counterproductive.”
Instead, the Arroyo administration continued supporting General Palparan by publicly considering him to head up the government’s anti-drug efforts this year. After the administration was forced to drop the idea in the face of strong public outcry, officials bemoaned that General Palparan’s poor reputation with the public was simply because he was an effective general.
The general long enjoyed favour within the Arroyo administration, who, at the height of the killings, promoted him as Major General and placed him in charge of the seventh and eighth infantry battalions. In 2006, while Karapatan was documenting seventy-five extra-judicial killings under Palparan’s command, President Arroyo awarded him the Distinguished Service Star.
General Palparan moved his war against leftist activists to the Philippine parliament as an elected official of the Bantay party – claiming to represent former military officers, security guards, and victims of the communist insurgency. Using his new political soapbox, Palparan even begun an effort to undermine the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, that recently stepped up efforts to investigate human rights abuses, under the leadership of its new chairwoman – Leila de Lima – after years of inaction or inability to investigate human rights violations.
By failing to open an investigation into General Palparan, the Philippine government sent the resounding message that military officials would continue to enjoy impunity. For decades, the Philippine military enjoyed impunity for thousands of human rights violations committed under the Marcos dictatorship, where activists were killed, tortured, and illegally detained by the military. The death squads under Marcos were never fully uncovered or dismantled, and the perpetrators were never held accountable.
It should come as no surprise, then, that human rights abuses continue to plague the Philippines, flaring up whenever military commanders, like Palparan, give the signal. Until those responsible for human rights abuses are held accountable through credible investigations and prosecutions, military officers will not think twice before ordering or following orders to kill, abduct or torture. The body count will continue to rise.♦
Brian Campbell is Director of Policy and Legal Programs, International Labor Rights Forum. ILRF website: http://www.laborrights.org
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