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Commentary: Meaningless elections, meaningless democracy

Written by Bruce Van Voorhis
June 10, 2007

Bruce Van Voorhis - Hong Kong

Within a span of several days in the middle of May, two important elections involving the Philippines were held. During the first election on May 14, citizens throughout the country cast their ballot for 12 senators--half of the Senate--all 230 members of the House of Representatives and more than 10,000 local officials. The second election on May 17 occurred thousands of miles away in New York at the U.N. General Assembly where the Philippines sought to be re-elected to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

In the latter election, the Philippines received 179 votes from the 192 members of the U.N. General Assembly--the fourth highest number of votes of any country in the world. With such a substantial vote of confidence from the international community for a seat on the United Nations' highest human rights body, one would assume that the Philippines has a stellar human rights record.

Unfortunately, this assumption would be false as hundreds of people have been extrajudicially killed and hundreds more have been the victims of forced disappearances in the past six years since Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assumed the presidency in 2001. Moreover, the killings and disappearances continue unabated today. Most of the victims are political opponents or critics of the government, and both the Melo Commission appointed by the president in August last year and Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, have reported that the perpetrator responsible for most of these human rights violations is the military. How then could the Philippines retain its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council when even the United Nations' own special rapporteur states that the country's military is responsible for the majority of the extrajudicial killings in the country?

In electing a country with such a poor human rights record, and with such a large number of votes, the U.N. General Assembly has diluted the credibility of the 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council that was established just a year ago, the result of the challenge of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to reform the U.N. human rights system to make it more responsive to human rights violations in the world. Although human rights has been elevated to the same status as security and development within the United Nations system, the vote on May 17 indicates that the international community, as represented by the U.N. General Assembly, is not serious about addressing the daily denial of people's rights and dignity throughout the world.

In the specific case of the Philippines, the re-election of the country to the U.N. Human Rights Council for three years is an insult to the victims of human rights abuses and their families in the Philippines. Their suffering is apparently insignificant to the international community; their desire for justice is apparently inconsequential to the world's governments. Instead, like the former U.N. Commission on Human Rights that the council replaced, human rights is evidently an issue over which the votes of countries can be negotiated and bartered--in this case the membership of the council itself--votes that reflect little resemblance to the reality of the promotion and protection of people's rights in their communities. With the election of the Philippines to the U.N. Human Rights Council by 179 member governments, one is struck by a very simple question: Do human rights have any meaning in the U.N. system?

Meanwhile, in the Philippines itself, 70 percent of the country's 45 million registered voters went to the polls to cast ballots for their members of Congress and local officials on May 14--a good election turnout in most countries. However, the election was allegedly marred by disenfranchisement, inflated lists of registered voters, vote-buying, vote-shaving and violence. Guns, gold and goons once again have played a role in a Philippine election.

After the election, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) acknowledged that as many as 100,000 voters in the south of the country were unable to vote because of either the threat of violence or a lack of ballots with some ballots reportedly stolen. One election monitor in the South said that she was told by voters in the city of Marawi that they had been able to vote more than once. Furthermore, in the mayoral election in Lapu-Lapu City in the Visayas region in the middle of the country, one candidate claimed that at least 187,000 people voted in a community with only 148,870 registered voters, and the election officer in Lapu-Lapu City said a week after the election that she was not sure when the election results would be transmitted to Manila as her four-member staff had not come to the office because they had received threats, which the election officer herself said she had received as well.

Perhaps the most revealing incident of the Philippine electoral exercise thus far occurred in the municipality of Kalingalan Caluang on the southern island of Sulu in which a school teacher, who was a board of election inspector, or BEI, said that she witnessed the chairman of a barangay (neighborhood), his relatives and other BEIs fill out ballots in a private house at 4:00 a.m. on election day and put their thumb prints on the ballots and in the voter registration book.

In another incident in the same community, more than 300 voters in one barangay were prevented from voting because their precincts were transferred to another barangay nine kilometers away the night before the election. Even a vice mayoral candidate could not vote, a candidate who learned later to his surprise that he had not received a single vote in his home village.

While these attempts to influence the outcome of the election and other similar irregularities throughout the country deserve condemnation, the most egregious transgressions were electoral violence; for in the May 14 election, more than 100 candidates and their party supporters were killed and more than 100 others were wounded since the election campaign began in January.

In spite of this election-related violence, Deputy Director General Avelino Razon Jr., former chief of Task Force Usig of the Philippine National Police (PNP) that was mandated last year to investigate the country's extrajudicial killings, reportedly said, "Overall, the situation was generally peaceful, except for some untoward incidents."

How though can the killing of more than 100 people be "generally peaceful"? Apparently the loss of more than 100 lives is insignificant to this senior police official. Moreover, how can the Philippines claim that they have just held free and fair legislative and local elections with so many anomalies and violence? What kind of democracy does this corrupt and violent electoral exercise reflect?

In a more perfect world, human rights and democracy reinforce one another--the former providing favorable conditions for democracy to flourish and the latter ensuring that human rights are respected. However, in the Philippines, with weekly extrajudicial killings and elections tainted by cheating and violence, both human rights and democracy are absent. The government, however, is either unwilling or unable to protect people's rights and conduct free and fair democratic elections. Consequently, in this environment, one can expect in the future more extrajudicial killings and disappearances as well as other human rights violations and policies that continue to fail to serve the Philippines' impoverished majority.

With the U.N. General Assembly rewarding a country with such a record with an impressive mandate to sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council for another three years and the Philippines choosing its political leaders through such a flawed electoral exercise, do elections and democracy have any meaning? The answer is in whether one values these institutions.

(Bruce Van Voorhis is a staff member of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong whose work often focuses on the Philippines. In addition to working at the commission since 2000, he is also a co-convener of the Hong Kong Campaign for the Advancement of Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, a coalition formed in April 2005 to respond to the upsurge of extrajudicial killings in the country.)

Bruce Van Voorhis serves as missionary with the Asian Human Rights Commission located in Hong KongHe serves as a writer and editor with the Commission.

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