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Numbers Debate Does Not Stop the Killings in the Philippines

May 7, 2007

Bruce Van Voorhis - Hong Kong

How many extrajudicial killings are acceptable to the Philippine government?

The question is important as the Philippine National Police's (PNP) Task Force Usig that was specifically entrusted by the Arroyo administration to investigate and prevent these killings in May 2006 has spent a good deal of time and resources debating the number of victims.

One of the most recent examples of this fixation on numbers is an online report on the ABS-CBN web site in which PNP Chief Superintendent Geary Barias, the recently appointed commander of Task Force Usig, said that the 839 victims as of March 2007 on a list compiled by Philippine human rights group KARAPATAN (Alliance for the Advancement of Human Rights) that have occurred since Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo became president in 2001 are inflated. Instead, the number of extrajudicial killings on the list confirmed by the task force is 115 with a further 207 yet to be verified by the PNP task force.

Is the discrepancy in numbers as important as the fact that, at a minimum, more than 100 Filipino's lives have been suddenly and violently ended? Is the discrepancy in numbers as important as the fact that no one has been convicted for these killings? Why is Task Force Usig so concerned about the discrepancy in the number of people killed and not the absence of any convictions? Why does Task Force Usig act more like a propaganda arm of the administration than an investigatory institution of the legal system?

Most, if not all, of those killed in the past six years, regardless of the number, have been advocates of the poor from different sectors of society--lawyers, journalists, pastors and lay church workers, students, peasants, trade unionists, opposition politicians, etc.--and critics of the government. The background of the victims raises further questions about the state of democracy in the Philippines; for in a country where the majority of the population is poor, why are those that seek to uphold the rights and interests of most citizens killed? Is there no longer any tolerance by the government for dissent? Does the government still respect the freedoms of expression, assembly and association?

Task Force Usig maintains that a large number of the victims have been killed in a purge of the communist movement in the country. This explanation though does not exonerate Task Force Usig and the government from its international obligation to protect the lives of its people and arrest and prosecute the perpetrators.

Moreover, this explanation has been dismissed by both the Melo Commission created by President Arroyo in August 2006 and Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, at the conclusion of his 10-day official visit in February. Jose Melo, a former Supreme Court justice and chairman of the commission that bears his name, said that the "majority of the killings pointed to . . . military elements," and Alston noted that the military "remains in a state of almost total denial . . . of its need to respond effectively and authentically to the significant number of killings which have been convincingly attributed to them."

Furthermore, Task Force Usig and the government have not stopped the killings. More victims are added to the list every week, and the total is expected to rise in the near future with the approach of the May 14 legislative and local elections.

The fact that few suspects for any of these extrajudicial killings have been arrested, fewer still prosecuted and no one convicted has spawned a climate of fear in the Philippines. Instead of the perpetrators fearing punishment, the families of the victims, witnesses to the killings, activists and others fear being added to the list of those killed. Consequently, there is little incentive for them to pursue justice. Indeed, not one family member of a victim or activist chose to testify before the Melo Commission last year out of fear for their safety.

If Task Force Usig is serious about investigating the country's extrajudicial killings, it has tools to do so. One of the most effective is Republic Act 6981, the Witness Protection, Security and Benefit Act, that, if enforced, would offer the victims' families and other witnesses the confidence that they could file a complaint with the police and testify in court without fear of reprisal. Without the enforcement of this law, it is doubtful that Task Force Usig or any other component of the police will be able to gather sufficient evidence and effectively prosecute the suspects of these killings.

Barias, Task Force Usig's commander, said in the ABS-CBN online article that the task force "conducted a validation [of KARAPATAN's list] to clear our country before the international community." However, if Barias and Task Force Usig and, indeed, the Philippine government are concerned about their international image, debating the number of people extrajudicially killed will have little impact with those outside of the country. Whether 839 people have been killed or there are 115 victims, it is one too many people. Only by arresting and prosecuting those responsible for these killings can the Philippine government restore its image with the international community and, more importantly, with its own people. Stop the killings, and the criticism will stop too.

About the author: 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
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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