Philippine President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino announces the members of his cabinet during a news conference in Quezon City, Metro Manila on June 29, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

MANILA, Philippines - As the son of a revered former president and democracy icon, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino inherits the hopes for change that the Philippine people put in his late mother, Corazon, following the "People Power" revolution of 1986.

But as he takes office, President Aquino also confronts his country's enduring tragedies. Security forces and their proxies have killed hundreds of left-wing activists and political party members, outspoken clergy and human rights advocates with almost complete impunity in recent years. "Death squads" in Davao City and elsewhere have been killing target suspected petty criminals and other marginalized residents. And powerful local politicians violently eliminate their opponents and prying journalists, without penalty.

When the number of killings dropped sharply in 2007 and 2008, after much condemnation by human rights groups and international pressure, many hoped the problem simply had gone away. But the massacre of at least 58 people attributed to a ruling family in Maguindanao in November 2009 reminded the world that nothing really had changed. Already, since June 9, when Aquino was proclaimed the winner of the presidential election, three journalists and a key witness to the Maguindanao massacre have been killed.

Successive governments in Manila have, at best, failed to combat the killings. Governments have sometimes excused these attacks, citing the need to fight communist insurgents and Islamist militants. But that is no excuse for government atrocities. Noynoy Aquino's legacy as president may very well hinge on his success at ending this bloodshed and bringing those responsible to account.

During his campaign, Aquino offered lofty rhetoric about the importance of justice, ending the killings, and abolishing private armies, but so far he has not articulated specific steps to combat these problems. Unless he moves swiftly with clear and effective policies, he risks replicating the deeply troubling records of his predecessors.  

First and foremost, Aquino should immediately initiate the comprehensive reforms necessary to end impunity for serious abuses. He should order the National Bureau of Investigation to investigate police and military personal at the command level who have been implicated in killings. He should also make clear to the police that they are required to pursue vigorously any crimes committed by government officials and police officers or be themselves the target of a criminal investigation.

Second, Aquino should take immediate steps to create an independent, accessible, and properly funded witness protection program. Witnesses make or break a case in the Philippines, where their testimony is often the only evidence that links a suspect to the crime. Yet, in a country where witnesses in political cases are often at great personal risk, the government does painfully little to protect them. The June 14 murder of a key witness to the Maguindanao massacre, whose pleas to the government for witness protection were ignored, was only the latest example of the consequences of this policy of neglect.  

Third, Aquino should make good on his promise to address one of the underlying causes of killings: the proliferation of so-called private armies - armed groups beholden to local politicians. Unfortunately, Aquino may have an unduly narrow understanding of the problem. When I met with him in April, he told me that his promise to abolish private armies did not extend to disbanding paramilitary forces that fall outside police or military chains of command, contending they are needed as "force multipliers." The Maguindanao massacre demonstrates that supposedly "private" armies are often composed of government-endorsed militia, including police and paramilitary forces. A promise to abolish private armies is empty if it excludes addressing the government forces that fall outside police or military chains of command. 

National security should never be built on forces that have such a long record of atrocities. Aquino should start by rescinding Executive Order 546, which has been interpreted by local governments and police as authority to arm these private armies. And to prevent mayors and governors from using soldiers and police for their personal interests, he should submit a priority bill to Congress to ensure that security forces answer exclusively to the military or police chain of command rather than to local government officials.

All leaders want to leave positive legacies, and Aquino has pledged to better the lot of ordinary Filipinos. Ending the killings and bringing under control the forces responsible for them would certainly be an achievement the Philippine people would long celebrate.

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.