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What we can do to help stop the violence

March 5, 2007

Bruce Van Voorhis - Hong Kong

For the past two years, a good deal of my time at the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has been devoted to seeking an end to the extrajudicial killings and disappearances in the Philippines, an issue I learned when I was home for Christmas has received little attention in the U.S. media and thus Americans have little awareness of what is occurring in our Southeast Asian ally.

The Philippine human rights group KARAPATAN (Alliance for the Advancement of People's Rights) has documented about 800 extrajudicial killings and nearly 200 disappearances since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took control of the country in 2001. Activists in the Philippines warn that human rights violations in the country are now at their worst level since the Marcos era. Victims in the past six years have included church leaders and lay people, journalists, lawyers, students, peasants, trade unionists and opposition politicians. Most of them are linked by the common denominator that they have been advocates for the poor who have sought to uphold the basic human rights of the country's most impoverished members.

The highest profile victim thus far has been Bishop Alberto Ramento of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI), or Philippine Independent Church, a leader of the ecumenical movement who was fatally stabbed at 4:00 a.m. on Oct. 3, 2006, while he slept on the second floor of the convent in Tarlac City located in Central Luzon north of Manila. The police immediately said that his death was not another political killing but that the motivation was robbery. Why, however, would anyone want to sneak into the second floor of a convent to rob a man who had been a champion of the poor all his life, a man who had reflected this commitment in his simple lifestyle? What valuables would such a man possess? To steal goods from a 69-year-old man in his sleep, why would he have to be stabbed seven times?

The message sent to the country is that, if a bishop can be killed, anyone can be killed. Indeed, on Oct. 6, three days after Bishop Ramento's murder, another IFI priest, Fr. Antonio Ablon, at the opposite end of the Philippines on the southern island of Mindanao received the following text message on his mobile phone: "Fr. Ablon, even the supreme bishop was killed. We will make you an example here in Cagayan de Oro."

From where does such bravado emanate?

It originates from the belief by observers both inside and outside of the Philippines that the military and police are responsible for most of the extrajudicial killings and disappearances in the country, an accusation that the military, police and government, of course, deny. Their denial, however, raises another list of questions.

For example, why are most of the victims critics of the government? How can masked men on motorcycles without license plates ride all over the countryside murdering people without being stopped? How can so many people be fatally shot in broad daylight? How can people be killed a few hundred yards from a police station or army camp without being apprehended?

Despite the denials by the authorities of their involvement in these deaths, what cannot be denied is that hundreds of people have been killed in the Philippines since Arroyo became president and the government has failed to prevent these deaths in spite of its international obligations to protect the lives of its people, especially their right to life. Moreover, few people have been arrested, and even fewer still have been convicted for any of these killings and disappearances. Consequently, a culture of impunity has been fostered, and fear has spread among society, so much so that witnesses to this violence are unwilling to cooperate with police investigations as they suspect that those investigating the killings are responsible for them. As a result, the rule of law has been replaced by the rule of lawlessness.

In response to this loss of life in the Philippines, AHRC, in addition to the urgent appeals it has issued in the past few years (go to www.ahrchk.net/ua and type "Philippines" in the search engine for a list of these urgent appeals), launched an online petition against the killings at http://www.pinoyhr.net/ that I would encourage you to sign. Campaign posters and postcards have also been produced that are available online at www.ahrchk.net/albums/gallery14 and www.ahrchk.net/albums/ecards/ecards/index.html respectively to respond to this human crisis in the Philippines. Other efforts have included involvement with the Hong Kong Campaign for the Advancement of Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (HKCAHRPP), a local coalition formed in April 2005 that has organized press conferences, demonstrations and a fact-finding mission to the Philippines in July 2006.

If the wave of violence under the Arroyo administration is to stop, then the existing environment of impunity must be brought to an end. The fear presently felt by victims and their families must be transferred to the perpetrators. A way to achieve this aim is through proper investigations and prosecutions, which presently leave much to be desired. Because the Philippine government is sensitive to international opinion, your response to AHRC's urgent appeals and signature on the online petition above can have an effect. Our brothers and sisters in the Philippines must not be allowed to suffer in silence.

With Peace,
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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