Lack of Accountability for Killings, Torture, Disappearances Should Top Agenda
May 21, 2012

UN member states should see through the Philippine government’s rhetoric and question the lack of progress on accountability over the past four years. The Universal Periodic Review is an important opportunity to hold the Philippine government to its word.

Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director

(Manila) – United Nations member countries should call on the Philippine government during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council to honor its commitments to ensure accountability for serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. The UPR is scheduled for May 29, 2012 at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. 

The administration of President Benigno Aquino III has failed to take significant measures to prosecute members of the military, police, and militias implicated in extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances, Human Rights Watch said. The UPR, through which all UN member states are examined once every four years, will allow governments to review the Philippines’ human rights record and propose recommendations. This is the second time the Philippines will undergo the review. 

“UN member states should see through the Philippine government’s rhetoric and question the lack of progress on accountability over the past four years,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Universal Periodic Review is an important opportunity to hold the Philippine government to its word.”

In particular, the government’s claims of progress in some areas – such as training state security forces to respect human rights – deflect attention from the more serious problem of failing to investigate, arrest, and prosecute those responsible for abuses, Human Rights Watch said. 

In its first UPR in 2008, governments proposed 17 recommendations to the Philippines to improve the country’s human rights record. These ranged from improving gender rights to eliminating extrajudicial killings. The Philippines accepted 11 of these recommendations, including one “to completely eliminate torture and extrajudicial killings” and “to intensify its efforts to carry out investigations and prosecutions on extrajudicial killings and punish those responsible.” 

In its national report for the UPR, the government said it had fulfilled these commitments. The number of extrajudicial killings has fallen sharply from the high levels of the past decade, but those responsible have not been prosecuted and serious abuses continue, Human Rights Watch said. 

In the report, the government “welcomed” a €3.9 million 18-month European Union-funded project to strengthen the capacity of the criminal justice system as “a major opportunity to put an end to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearance in the country.” 

Since 2008 however, the government has successfully prosecuted only four cases of extrajudicial killings, all under the previous administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. In 2011, Human Rights Watch documented at least 10 cases of killings and disappearances attributed to the security forces that occurred during Aquino’s first year in office. Not a single suspect has been successfully prosecuted in any of these cases.

The UPR report praises various task forces and mechanisms created in recent years to address the problem of impunity. These include the much-vaunted Task Force Usig, the Task Force Against Political Violence, and the Special Task Force to Address Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearance. But these bodies have failed to produce results and in some instances appear to be little more than public relations exercises, Human Rights Watch said. 

“The Philippine government is relentless in its pursuit of creating human rights task forces,” Pearson said. “If only officials were just as relentless in pursuing the perpetrators of military abuses so that the victims might get justice.”

Instead of bolstering investigatory capabilities and improving cooperation with civilian authorities, the human rights offices of the military and police have downplayed new abuses, Human Rights Watch said. The Human Rights Office of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), in statements to the news media in May, said that the absence of prosecutions was because “all of the human rights violation cases tagging military personnel were only accusations and did not produce sufficient evidence against soldiers.” 

The Human Rights Office chief, Col. Domingo Tutaan, contended that the lack of prosecutions was evidence that the military’s human rights program, in which officers and men are trained to respect human rights, had been successful. 

The government’s UPR report highlights the military’s Human Rights Office as an important element in combating human rights abuses by the armed forces by monitoring incidents, receiving complaints, instigating investigations, and following litigation. The report said that, “In line with the AFP’s zero-tolerance for human rights campaign, cases, particularly those on extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance and torture that informed armed forces officers and personnel are acted upon by Human Rights Officers in accordance with due process of law and the military justice system.”

However the military’s Human Rights Office has not revealed the details of the cases that have been investigated and acted upon, Human Rights Watch said. 

In practice, the military’s Human Rights Office both investigates abuses and publicly defends the military when soldiers are implicated in rights violations – contradictory functions that undermine the office’s credibility, Human Rights Watch said. 

The Human Rights Affairs Office of the Philippine National Police has similarly focused on analyzing records of reported violations and providing human rights training, rather than assisting in investigating alleged abuses by the police, Human Rights Watch said. 

Human Rights Watch urged countries at the Human Rights Council to make specific, time-bound recommendations to the Philippine government. To address impunity, the government should order the police and National Bureau of Investigation to pursue vigorously serious rights violations linked to the security forces. If cases are not properly investigated, the government should take appropriate disciplinary measures for insubordination and undertake criminal investigations for obstruction of justice, graft, or corruption.

Countries should also urge the government to ban all paramilitary and militia forces because of their long and continuing history of serious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. While the government asserted in its UPR report that it has “dismantled and neutralized” many “private armies,” it said nothing about state-backed paramilitaries.

The Philippine government has made several notable human rights improvements since the first UPR in 2008, Human Rights Watch said. The government passed a law against torture in 2009, though no one has yet been convicted under this statute. It ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 2011. Efforts are under way to make access to justice by the poor easier by eliminating court fees and through the “Justice on Wheels” programs – buses turned into courtrooms that go to communities. The government has also been requiring human rights components for development plans and policies. 

Perhaps the most significant breakthrough was the Justice Department’s filing of cases against retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan for the kidnapping and illegal detention of two activists. The Justice Department also filed a case against former Palawan governor Joel Reyes for the murder of a journalist, Gerry Ortega. However, the two accused remain at large, despite their high profile. Human Rights Watch has learned that Palparan’s former army colleagues and business associates have been protecting him. 

“Recent accomplishments by the Philippine government are no basis for disregarding the many serious problems that remain in the country,” Pearson said. “Governments at the UN Human Rights Council should take the opportunity to remind the Philippines of that.”

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