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(Manila) – Philippine President Benigno Aquino III should commit his administration to meaningful human rights reforms in his final State of the Nation Address on July 27, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. Aquino’s address may be his last major public policy speech before his term ends after the next presidential election in May 2016. Under the Philippine constitution, presidents serve a single six-year term.

Aquino won the 2010 election on a political platform that included explicit human rights commitments, including a promise to tackle the lack of accountability of the military and police. However, his five years as president have been marked more by rhetoric than concrete action to address serious human rights violations in the Philippines such as extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino delivers his fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) during the joint session of the 16th Congress at the House of Representatives of the Philippines in Quezon city, metro Manila on July 28, 2014. © 2014 Reuters

“President Aquino has an opportunity in his final State of the Nation Address to outline lasting measures to address the human rights problems too often ignored during his five years in office,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “This is Aquino’s best – and last – chance to demonstrate that his human rights commitments are not empty political rhetoric.”

In his inaugural speech on June 30, 2010, Aquino gave “marching orders” to the Department of Justice to “begin the process of providing true and complete justice for all.” Human rights violations during the term of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, were rampant, with hundreds of activists and journalists killed, tortured, or abducted.

In December 2010, during the commemoration of International Human Rights Day, Aquino said that “the culture of silence, injustice and impunity that once reigned is now a thing of the past.” In his second State of the Nation Address in 2011, Aquino reiterated this commitment, saying, “We are aware that the attainment of true justice does not end in the filing of cases, but in the conviction of criminals.”

That rhetoric has led to some significant, if limited, results for improving human rights. The government has worked closely with the Justice Department and the Supreme Court to implement programs designed to improve the investigative capacity of the police, the prosecutorial competence of the Justice Department, and the capabilities of the courts to handle cases. The government has appointed more judges and prosecutors to address chronic court volume congestion. The government has also convened the Human Rights Victims Claims Board and tasked it with making reparations to victims of the Ferdinand Marcos regime from 1972 to 1986.

However, the impunity of the Philippine security forces that Aquino promised to eliminate persists. Killings of both leftist activists and journalists continue. A “superbody” that Aquino created in 2012 to resolve these killings has not made significant progress. Torture by members of the security forces remains routine. Elements of the military continue to be implicated in serious abuses, particularly in the countryside as part of its counterinsurgency operations. Police have been linked to summary killings, particularly “death squad” operations carried out in complicity with local officials such as in Tagum City and other urban areas.

Records released to Human Rights Watch in May 2015 by Task Force Usig, the main arm of the Philippine National Police for investigating and monitoring extrajudicial killings, show that the government has secured only one conviction out of the 130 cases of killings of activists it recorded since 2001. The domestic human rights group Karapatan recorded 262 extrajudicial killings from the time Aquino came to office in 2010.

Task Force Usig recorded 51 cases of journalist murders from 2001 to May 2015, 8 of which resulted in convictions.

In his State of the Nation Address, Aquino should make the following policy commitments to:
  • Direct the Philippine National Police and Task Force Usig to improve its investigation and documentation of cases of alleged extrajudicial killings, and submit a regular – preferably monthly – progress report on the status of these cases;
  • Direct the interagency body (the so-called superbody) created by Administration Order 35 and led by the Justice Department to expedite the inventory of the “priority cases” begun in 2012 and to make public the status of these cases, and require the “superbody” to provide monthly updates on the status of these priority cases and the reasons for any delay in initiating prosecutions;
  • Publicly disavow “death squads” in urban areas as a legitimate crime-control strategy and investigate and appropriately prosecute any government official involved in extrajudicial killings;
  • Issue a public order to all security forces rejecting the threat or use of force against political activists, unionists, and members of civil society groups for expressing their political views. In addition, reiterate to all forces the Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) Bayanihan’s emphasis on international human rights and humanitarian law as one of its two “strategic imperatives”; and
  • Rescind executive order 546 signed in 2006 that allows local politicians to effectively form their own militias or private armies, such as that implicated in the Maguindanao Massacre in 2009.

“President Aquino’s record on human rights is five years of squandered opportunity,” Kine said. “Aquino should use his State of the Nation Address to demonstrate that that he will use his last year in office to focus on ending human rights abuses rather than turning a blind eye to them.”

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