Police officers at the crime scene of the murder of Rogelio Butalid, a broadcast commentator, outside his radio station in Tagum City, in the southern Philippines on December 11, 2013. A witness told Human Rights Watch that a Tagum Death Squad member shot Butalid at point-blank range.

© 2013 Earl Condeza/Davaotoday.com

The Philippines Congress took an important step on Wednesday against unlawful killings by local officials by calling for an urgent official probe into “death squad” killings exposed in a recent Human Rights Watch report.

House Resolution No. 1222 directs the Congressional Committee on Human Rights to “conduct an immediate investigation, in aid of legislation, on the extrajudicial killings perpetrated by the Tagum Death Squad and allegedly created by local government officials in Tagum City, Davao Del Norte.” That resolution extensively references Human Rights Watch’s revelations of the existence, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, of a death squad linked to hundreds of killings in the past decade. The death squad was organized, equipped, and financed by then Tagum City Mayor Rey “Chiong” Uy and elements of the local police and municipal government.

The congressional resolution is a welcome change from the willingness of successive Philippine governments to turn a blind eye to such brutality. First in nearby Davao City and then in other cities across the country, unidentified gunmen often “riding in tandem” on motorbikes have executed petty criminals, suspected drug dealers, and street children in the name of cleaning up the city of its “undesirables.” Mayor Uy used to refer to them as “weeds.” Yet despite the magnitude of the killings, the administration of Benigno Aquino III has never gotten serious about addressing the problem. 

The congressmen who co-sponsored the resolution, Rep. Carlos Isagani T. Zarate and Rep. Neri Javier Colmenares, deserve praise for their willingness to challenge the official silence and denial regarding extrajudicial killings. But their stand against impunity demands long-overdue leadership on extrajudicial killings.

Aquino first should publicly denounce local anti-crime campaigns that promote or encourage unlawful use of force. He also needs to direct the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct an investigation into such killings in Tagum City – and elsewhere in the country. The Justice Department needs to ensure the safety of witnesses and relatives of victims to help ensure successful prosecutions in such cases. The Commission on Human Rights can raise public awareness by organizing public hearings on death squad killings in Tagum and elsewhere, and the alleged involvement of local officials.

The Philippines Congress has sent a much-needed signal that the country’s culture of impunity for extrajudicial killings needs to come to an end. Now it’s up to President Aquino to translate that signal into meaningful action.