Yearender: Human rights protection in RP sinks to 'terrible low'

Yearender: Human rights protection in RP sinks to 'terrible low'
By Katherine Adraneda (The Philippine Star) Updated January 01, 2010 12:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines - The country’s dismal reputation on human rights promotion and protection got worse in 2009.

After declaring a “dismal” state of human rights defense in the country in 2008, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) affirmed that 2009 was not any better.

CHR chair Leila de Lima said the prevailing culture of impunity by allies of the Arroyo administration saw the Philippines “sink to a terrible low” in terms of human rights protection.

De Lima said the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao last month can be considered as “a foreshadowing of even worse things to come.”

The massacre has been blamed on a family of politicians that are allied with the Arroyo administration.

“That slaughter offers us a foreshadowing of the other horrors and brutalities we will continue to face, if we do not find meaningful and lasting solutions to some of our grave, systemic problems,” De Lima noted.

“We were already aware that a culture of impunity continues to be pervasive. We already knew for some time that the rule of law was being weakened, and that our elections were being hijacked by the powerful, the wealthy, and the corrupt,” she said.

De Lima stressed the brutal mass murder in Maguindanao made it clear that if no effort is made to preserve and sustain human rights protection, “we will see more brutal murders, individual and en masse, in the coming years.”

According to De Lima, even before the Maguindanao massacre, there already were numerous incidents and “credible allegations” of enforced disappearances, torture, and unexplained killings in the country.

De Lima mentioned that even human rights defenders, as well as members of the media, continued to be harassed and became targets of violence.

De Lima also noted that the government’s counter-insurgency program continued to vilify civil society organizations and their members, branding them as fronts of communist rebels.

This kind of move, she said, is an attempt to transform civilians into legitimate military targets.

The human rights group Karapatan agreed with De Lima’s assessment.

Karapatan reported an increase in the number of victims of unexplained killings in the country during the first 10 months of 2009.

Karapatan said they documented 77 victims of extralegal killings from January-October 2009, which is more than the 53 cases that the group recorded in the same period in 2008.

Karapatan said there are now 1,118 documented victims of unexplained killings.

Karapatan also reported three cases of enforced disappearance from January to October this year, bringing the total number of victims of enforced disappearance to 204 in the eight years and 10 months of the Arroyo administration.

Karapatan also reported the total number of torture victims reached 1,026 in the first 10 months of 2009, while there were 94 cases of illegal arrests in the same period.

De Lima, on the other hand, lamented that thousands continue to be internally displaced by the armed conflict while so-called death squads or vigilante groups continue to operate in some of the country’s major cities such as Davao.

De Lima also expressed disappointment over a Commission on Elections (Comelec) decision against a gay group seeking party-list accreditation, which she said only sustained the prevailing social bias on sexual orientation.

“The dismal state of human rights in 2008 was being perpetuated into 2009, notwithstanding the good faith efforts of many individuals, both within government and outside of it,” De Lima said.

Just like in 2008, De Lima again declined to give the Arroyo administration a numeric grade in terms of its promotion and protection of human rights in the country for 2009.

She stressed that there are men and women in the government who continue to work hard in improving human rights conditions in the country amid criticisms from both local and international groups.

But there still others, De Lima said, who only pay lip service to human rights protection, and there are some who are even willing to disregard human rights for expediency.

Though De Lima made no mention of any group or individual in government, she said the actions and decisions taken by the Arroyo government are “disturbing from a human rights point of view.”

De Lima cited the government response to the Maguindanao massacre, including the poor system of collecting and preserving evidence gathered from the site, charging the suspects of the massacre with rebellion, and the declaration of martial law in the province.

Positive accomplishments

De Lima, on the other hand, lauded the government for the enactment of laws such as the Anti-Torture Law, the Magna Carta of Women, Anti-Child Pornography Law, and the Law on Crimes Against International Humanitarian Law, Genocide and other Crimes Against Humanity, among others.

De Lima also commended the Philippine National Police (PNP) for its Memorandum of Understanding with the CHR in committing to respect the human rights body’s visitorial powers and allow access to police detention facilities.

De Lima also hailed the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) for its efforts to coordinate with the CHR to improve the human rights training of military personnel.

“Again, while there are those individuals in government who see human rights as a threat, there are also those who would like nothing more than to see human rights truly respected and protected in the country,” she stressed.

Vested interests

De Lima encouraged “persons from all walks of life” - from government and civil society, business and academe, the media, other organizations, and the public at large - to put on a united front and demand the protection of the human rights for all people.

De Lima stressed that one of the reasons why it is so difficult to ensure that human rights are truly upheld in the country is the fact that there are many vested interests who benefit from human rights violations and abuses.

She warned that these individuals would not give up their “entrenched positions” of power and wealth without a fight.

“The vested interests are many, so we should be too,” De Lima said.

She said amending or changing some of the laws concerning the issues would be proper, such as laws that discriminate on the basis of gender.

De Lima said administrative issuances which undermine the ability of the different branches of government to act a check and balance on each other should be reversed.

De Lima further called on the government and Congress to approve pending measures enhancing human rights protection.

She pressed the national government to pass the proposed charter of the CHR to allow the body to carry out its constitutional mandate and formalize the effort of human rights protection and enlist support in international forums.

“The fact that the proposed CHR Charter was not prioritized by the government speaks volumes about its position on human rights,” De Lima pointed out.

“That Charter... would have helped our relatively small organization better carry out its broad and rather extensive mandate, with respect to human rights throughout the country. But the Charter was not prioritized, and has not yet been passed,” she lamented.

The CHR has been conducting public inquiries into some of the worst alleged human rights violations brought to its attention, including the inquiry into the alleged Davao Death Squads, as well as other vigilante groups operating in major cities in the country over persistent reports of summary executions of even petty offenders.

The high profile inquiries conducted by the CHR included the killings in Samar, which victims include Fr. Cecilio Lucero; militarization, harassment and internal displacement in Surigao del Sur; violent demolitions within the context of mining in Nueva Vizcaya; reports of abduction and torture in Tarlac; and the recent events unfolding in Maguindanao, among others.

In Davao, the CHR’s efforts in partnership with other government agencies and security forces led to the unearthing of human remains in a private property.

The CHR also advocated the right to vote of vulnerable sectors, such as persons with disabilities, internally displaced persons, the elderly, indigenous peoples, detainees, first-time voters, and migrant workers.

On the international front, the CHR participated in proceedings before United Nations treaty bodies on human rights protection.

While the government tends to paint a fairly rosy picture of the human rights situation in the country, the CHR made a “shadow reporting” and gave the UN bodies a clearer and more complete picture of the human rights reality on the ground.

“Through all these inquiries, we seek to uncover the truth, to accumulate evidence and testimony, to end instances of violations, and to bring these situations to the attention of the public at large, so that they too may judge for themselves the true state of human rights in the country,” De Lima said.

“We seek to fulfill our constitutionally-entrenched mandate and functions, and thereby help ensure respect and protection for the human rights of all Filipinos, and all people.”

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