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Who Is Responsible?

March 31, 2008


Bruce Van Voorhis - Hong Kong & the Philippines

My letter to you last year at this time focused on the hundreds of extrajudicial killings and disappearances in the Philippines since Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo became president in 2001. In 2007, while the killings and disappearances did not stop, they at least dramatically dropped in number. KARAPATAN (Alliance for the Advancement of People's Rights), a human rights group in the Philippines with which we work, reported 209 extrajudicial killings in 2006 and 68 in 2007. Similarly, disappearances, according to KARAPATAN, fell from 78 in 2006 to 26 in 2007. While the reduction in these serious human rights violations is, indeed, good news, a question naturally arises: Why? There are no concrete explanations, but merely a number of suppositions.

First of all, in January last year, the Melo Commission, appointed by Arroyo, stated that the "majority of the killings pointed to . . . military elements," a finding that was underlined the following month when Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur responsible for investigating extrajudicial killings, visited the country and said in his statement before leaving Manila 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." Thus, both a national and international examination of the problem came to the same conclusion: the primary actors responsible for these deadly human rights violations are the country's armed forces.

The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) pointed its finger as well at the military as the party responsible for the country's dismal human rights record through its 90-page report "Let the Stones Cry Out" that it submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, and members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in Washington in March. Subsequently, both houses of Congress have introduced legislation that would put conditions on future U.S. military aid to the Philippines, conditions that are related to improved human rights in the country.

Thus, internally and externally, the Arroyo administration has faced an increasing amount of pressure to stop the extrajudicial killings and disappearances in the country in the past year-pressure that apparently has led to a decline in the number of deaths and abductions. While this development is naturally welcome, it must be underlined that there have been convictions in only two cases out of hundreds of incidents, and thus, with so few arrested and convicted, there is little to prevent the level of violence from escalating again to its previous level as such a small number of perpetrators have been punished. Impunity is regrettably still alive in the Philippines.

The years of extrajudicial killings and disappearances in the Philippines illustrate a phenomenon that unfortunately in Asia is not unique to the country-weak or even pseudodemocracies that routinely violate the rights of their people. When most of the victims in the Philippines have been advocates of the poor, when most of the population is poor, when most of the perpetrators are agents of the State, how can a government claim it is a democracy? Is it not the responsibility of a democratic government to represent the interests of the majority of its people and to uphold everyone's rights, especially the most fundamental right of all-the right to life? Why then are those who seek to exert their rights for the benefit of the majority of the people being killed by the army? Setting aside questions about the legitimacy of Arroyo's election (for many observers believe that the 2004 election was neither free nor fair), democracies are much more than just regular elections: they also include the ability of everyone to equally participate in the political decision-making process. People can only participate if their human rights are promoted and protected. In short, can there be a democracy without respect for people's human rights?

The tragic killings and disappearances in the Philippines also highlight another point applicable to other countries in Asia, a point involving the role of the military. Presumably, the primary task of the military in any country is to defend the nation and its people. However, in the Philippines and many other Asian countries, the military repeatedly kill, abduct, and torture their own people. The military's primary mission of national defense has now become suppressing internal dissent. The aim of this shift in orientation is to protect the political and socio-economic interests of a powerful minority of people rather than the national interest. Naturally, political leaders try to confuse these two very different sets of interests by asserting directly or indirectly that they are the same.

Underlying all these issues is the fundamental reality that some people are above the law. Indeed, the rule of law in the Philippines has sunk to such depths that a number of judges and public defenders have admitted that they are carrying guns to protect themselves. Until everyone is equal before the law and the political leadership of the Philippines is willing to put the public interest above their own private interests, the political will necessary to stop the extrajudicial killings and disappearances in the country and to render justice to the victims and their families will be needlessly lacking.

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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