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The hope of amparo

November 8, 2007

Bruce Van Voorhis - Hong Kong

In the midst of recent allegations of corruption involving the Philippine government's award to Chinese firm ZTE Corp. for nationwide broadband services for government agencies, bribes to congressmen to support a weak impeachment motion that will immunize President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from future impeachment motions for a year over such issues as perhaps the ZTE contract, the improper distribution of bags of money each filled with hundreds of thousands of pesos to hundreds of congressmen, governors and other local officials and, lastly, the deadly explosion at the Glorietta 2 Mall in Manila, the Philippines has something to celebrate today: the writ of ampere takes effect!

In most countries, the introduction of such a legal mechanism would produce perhaps a surge of national slumber instead of an ovation; but in the Philippines, where justice has been absent for the hundreds of victims of extrajudicial killings and disappearances and their families in the past six years since Arroyo became president, celebration is appropriate.

Celebration is fitting, first of all, because a government institution--the country's Supreme Court--has finally taken meaningful action to address the violence of these deadly human rights violations and the fear and impunity they have engendered in the country--not just rhetoric and condemnation, but action!

Supporters of the Arroyo administration might remind me that the president created Task Force Usig and the Melo Commission last year, but have the killings and disappearances of political activists stopped? Has anyone been convicted for these murders and abductions? Unfortunately, the answers to both questions are negative.

What, however, is the writ of amparo?

It is a legal petition that anyone in the Philippines whose "right to life, liberty and security" has been "violated or threatened" by an "unlawful act or omission of a public official or employee or of a private individual or entity" can file at no cost in regional trial courts throughout the country, the anti-graft court Sandiganbayan, Court of Appeal or Supreme Court. In addition to victims, their family members and other concerned citizens, organizations or institutions can file the writs with these judicial bodies as well.

The writ of amparo, meaning "protection" in Spanish, has been imported from Mexico and other Latin American countries as a practical outcome of the two-day summit held by the Supreme Court in July in Manila to discuss how to respond to the country's wave of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

In reading the rule of the court implementing the writ of amparo (please see http://philippines.ahrchk.net/pdf/WritofAmparo.pdf or http://philippines.ahrchk.net/pdf/PrimerOnWritOfAmparo.pdf), one is struck by its emphasis on rendering justice in an expeditious manner. For instance, once the petition has been filed, the court must issue the writ immediately, and the person on whom the writ is served, which is enforceable anywhere in the Philippines, has three days to respond. The writ must also schedule a summary hearing of the petition within seven days. The writ prohibits a general denial of the allegations in the petition nor can motions to dismiss the allegations or postpone the proceedings be entertained by the court. Counterclaims are also disallowed. Moreover, the court must render a decision within 10 days after the hearing has concluded.

The writ of amparo also provides such interim measures as temporary protection orders for the petitioner and their immediate family, inspection and production orders to attain evidence and witness protection orders so that witnesses can avail themselves of the country's witness protection law, Republic Act 6981.

In the wake of this serious initiative by the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Reynato Puno, to legally tackle the country's extrajudicial killings and disappearances, one is struck by the lack of substantive actions to deal with this issue by the other two major arms of the government--the executive and legislative branches--over the years.

The work of the Philippine National Police's (PNP) Task Force Usig, for example, has produced few results since it was formed in May 2006. The extrajudicial killings and disappearances have continued, and no one thus far has been convicted. Moreover, Task Force Usig's understanding of "solving" cases, i.e., sending the case to the prosecutor, does not take into account the rejection of the case by prosecutors because of insufficient evidence, for instance, or an acquittal by the court. If this is the outcome of a case, does this mean that justice has been served and the case has been "solved"?

Another component of the executive branch--the military--which the Arroyo-appointed Melo Commission concluded is responsible for the majority of the extrajudicial killings in the country, is in "almost a state of total denial," according to Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, who visited the country in February.

Furthermore, the Philippine government has not taken the initiative to sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, a new U.N. human rights instrument that was opened for signatures in February. Among its provisions, the new U.N. convention absolutely prohibits disappearances and calls upon governments to enact legislation to this effect. Victims and their families are given the right under the convention to know the circumstances surrounding the disappearance and to be awarded compensation. The convention's monitoring body can also accept cases for urgent action directly from individuals and, upon the invitation of the government, visit the country. In addition, if disappearances are determined to be a widespread and systematic phenomenon in a country, the convention then defines them as a crime against humanity, and the matter can be taken before the U.N. General Assembly.

While signing and ratifying this U.N. convention against disappearances will not automatically stop the practice in the Philippines or any other country, it will signify to the international community that the Philippine government takes the issue of disappearances seriously and it intends to take measures to prevent them from occurring and to address the needs of victims and their families.

However, even more worrisome is the decision by the president to issue Administrative Order No. 197, which calls on the Department of National Defense and Armed Forces of the Philippines to draft legislation, in consultation with the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office and congressional allies, "for safeguards against disclosure of military secrets and undue interference in military operations inimical to national security." Issued on September 25--the same day that the Supreme Court approved the rules for the writ of amparo--it appears to be Arroyo's attempt to dilute the effectiveness of this new writ. If the government is sincere in its efforts to stop these grave human rights violations and ensure justice for the victims and their families, why was such an administrative order promulgated and released at this time?

Meanwhile, the actions of the legislative branch have been, if anything, detrimental to improving the country's human rights record. In February, Congress passed the Human Security Act (HSA) of 2007. Coming into force in July, the HSA's broad definition of terrorism and the powers it grants the police are anxiously viewed as a new weapon that can be utilized by the authorities to violently eliminate their political opponents and critics in the name of combating terrorism.

It is in this environment of inaction by the executive and legislative branches of government that the introduction of the writ of amparo by the judiciary is welcomed.

Naturally, initiating the writ of amparo does not guarantee that it will be effectively used and enforced. It is thus with much anticipation that observers await the outcome of its use. Edith Burgos, whose late husband was a well-known newspaper publisher during the Marcos era, has already indicated that she will utilize the powers of the writ of amparo this week to find her son Jonas, who was abducted in a shopping mall in Quezon City on the afternoon of April 28 this year. A writ of habeas corpus previously filed in the case has not yet produced any results as the military has refused to hand over the report of an investigation to determine whether soldiers were involved in the disappearance. This prominent case is an important test for whether the writ of amparo will have an effect on ending the extrajudicial killings and disappearances in the country.

The provisions of the writ of amparo indicate that the Supreme Court is exercising the needed political will to bring to justice those responsible for the extrajudicial killings and disappearances in the Philippines and to stop this violence. It is political will that has thus far been lacking by President Arroyo and Congress.

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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