Human Rights Developments
The Philippine government's human rights record in 1991 was mixed. According to both the government's Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and nongovernmental human rights groups, violations declined on all fronts. But reports of abuses, including disappearances, extrajudicial killings, incommunicado detention and warrantless arrests, continued. A 1990 law permitting warrantless arrest of suspected subversives continued to be used to arrest suspected members of the rebel New People's Army (NPA), some of whom were held for weeks in solitary confinement and tortured.
Government forces were not alone in committing abuses. The NPA, the armed wing of the banned Communist party, continued to kill members of the military, police, other paramilitary forces and civilians in situations outside of combat. As in the past, there were reports of execution-style killings of police and off-duty military officers by rebel hit squads, the so-called "sparrow units," seeking to steal the victim's gun. Typically, a rebel in civilian clothing approached a victim and shot him at close range. Apart from the humanitarian-law violation inherent in targeting people who often were performing no combat function, the disguising of NPA combatants as civilians served to blur the distinction between the two and increased the likelihood of abuse of civilians.
On September 28, in Lawaan in eastern Samar province, insurgents were reportedly responsible for a massacre of seven civilians riding in a police car, including the mayor. In October, the NPA in northern Luzon island admitted for the first time in a press statement that it had been holding an American hostage, Arbie Duane Drown, since his disappearance in Cagayan province a year before.
Legal and legislative developments in 1991 were for the most part encouraging. The government enacted several reforms reflecting the recommendations of numerous national and international human rights groups, particularly those of the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, which issued its report on the Philippines in January.
In June, President Corazon Aquino signed a bill repealing Presidential Decree 1850, an enactment of the martial law era, and concurrently signed into law an act assuring civilian-court jurisdiction over military personnel in cases involving offenses against civilians. The repeal of Presidential Decree 1850 was a major victory for human rights groups in the Philippines, which together with a majority of legislators had been clamoring for its repeal since President Aquino took office in 1986. The decree had given military courts jurisdiction over cases involving all military personnel, including those accused of human rights offenses against civilians.
Still, military impunity remained a problem in 1991, even in the most visible cases. In a widely publicized case in February, fifteen soldiers were acquitted of charges of having massacred nineteen civilians in November 1990 in New Passi, Sultan Kudarat, despite eyewitnesses and physical evidence that strongly linked the unit to the massacre. Reports by the government's Commission on Human Rights had strongly implicated the military, and a doctor presented evidence showing that the victims had been shot in the back at point-blank range. As in other cases, eyewitnesses who had submitted signed affidavits failed to come forward at the trial, reportedly because of fears for their own security.
The right to be protected against arbitrary arrest remains seriously eroded. Since July 1990, the Supreme Court has permitted warrantless arrest not only of rebels but also of those suspected of being Communist Party members, on the grounds that membership in a banned organization may be considered a "continuing crime."
Numerous reports suggest that the military has used the court's ruling to arrest suspects in the absence of strong prima facie cases against them. Arrests reportedly often followed by incommunicado detention, during which forcible attempts are made to extract confessions. Philippine human rights groups assert that the incidence of warrantless arrests has risen since the decision, and that the military also routinely plants weapons on suspects to legitimize otherwise weak cases of alleged subversion.
In one instance on August 21, Roberto Roldan, a freelance filmmaker and Marcos-era detainee, was arrested without a warrant while reportedly shopping at a mall in Quezon City. Roldan said that the military held him incommunicado for a week and forced him to make a confession at gunpoint. Only after a delay of two weeks was he officially charged with subversion and possession of a firearm, which he claimed had been planted. He remained in custody at the end of the year.
There were continuing reports of disappearances in 1991. In several cases, witnesses identified the abductors as members of the military, the police or Civilian Armed Forces-Geographical Units (CAFGU), the official paramilitary organization. In one case, a member of a militant peasant's organization disappeared after he was taken into police custody. Local human rights organizations said he had been arrested because of his activities as a farmers' organizer.
Amnesty International (AI) reported that Renato Tabasa Zabate was abducted by a group of armed men on September 8 and was still missing at the end of the year. In 1990, members of Zabate's organization, the United Farmers Organization, were reportedly subjected to harassment by military forces for being suspected supporters of the New People's Army. AI believed that Zabate, whom military agents had detained once before in an unofficial "safehouse" in 1987, was still being held at the Cebu Metropolitan District Command Headquarters of the Philippine National Police, at Camp Sotero in Cebu City.
Extrajudicial killings by government forces continued in 1991. As in the past, most of the victims were peasants, poor urban squatters and labor-union activists, in Negros Occidental, Cebu and Mindanao. A June report by the International Federation of Human Rights described several such killings. In one, in Negros Occidental province in February, Enrico Perolino, a farmworker who had fled military operations in his rural village, was reportedly dragged out of an evacuation center in Bacolod and shot dead in full view of his son. The perpetrator, a CAFGU member, was identified by name by the son. The alleged murderer has not been discharged, although an investigation has been initiated by the CHR.
Individuals with outspoken political views were also victims of targeted killings. In January, according to Amnesty International, two armed men in Negros Occidental province assassinated Father Narciso Pico, a parish priest of the Philippine Independent Church who was well known for his advocacy of human rights and land reform. Before his death, Father Pico had been repeatedly warned that the military had targeted him as a suspected communist sympathizer. Information collected by local and international monitors pointed to CAFGU members or members of an unofficial paramilitary group as the perpetrators.
For the first time under the Aquino government, local human rights and environmental organizations reported that environmental activists were becoming targets of military abuse. Henry Domoldol, chair of a community association pressing to keep forests under tribal management, was shot dead on July 26, as he was coming out of his home in Kopis, a village in the town of Conner in the northern province of Kalinga-Apayao. Witnesses, including two of his sons, identified the gunmen as members of the Philippine Army and CAFGU.
In another case, a priest who had been active in promoting the arrest of illegal loggers in his parish was shot dead with impunity by military agents apparently protecting an illegal logger. On October 14, the Reverend Nerilito Satur, parish priest in Valencia, Bukidnon, was shot fifteen times and his skull was crushed with rifle butts by three masked men. The bishop of the diocese and the regional Department of Environment and Natural Resources charged a military colonel from Cagayan de Oro, a local sergeant, and three paramilitary men with the planning and execution of the killing. Although warrants have been issued for the arrest of the five since October 30, they remain free because the police reportedly fear a "confrontation."
Human rights lawyers also continued to be victims of harassment and death threats, apparently from military-linked groups. In one case reported by a national coalition of human rights lawyers, surveillance was a precursor to an assassination attempt. On July 17, Vidal Tombo, a human rights lawyer who handles cases of political prisoners and NPA suspects, was injured in front of his home when two men jumped out of a red jeep and started firing on him and his friends with Armalite rifles. Tombo reportedly recognized the red jeep as the same one he recalled from earlier surveillance.
The enforcement of human rights laws continued to be a problem in 1991. The Commission on Human Rights, which is empowered to investigate cases but not to prosecute them, remained ineffectual. From the CHR's founding in 1987 through the middle of 1991, only four out of hundreds of military personnel accused of human rights abuses had been convicted.
There were also disturbing reports questioning the impartiality and accuracy of the CHR. In one case in February, AI reported that five men were abducted by elements of the 24th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army in Angeles City, Pampanga province, apparently on suspicion of being NPA supporters. According to an AI report in March, three of the victims were held incommunicado for at least one month. AI reported that two of the three, Manuel Capitulo and Antonio Bondoc, had been severely beaten, suspended in the air and thrown into a grave with hands and feet chained. The two were released one month later.
When the CHR issued a report on its investigation into the case in April, it suggested that Capitulo had never disappeared and that local human rights organizations were simply fabricating the case. Stating that Capitulo "is alive and did not actually disappear," the CHR reported that an investigator had found Capitulo at his sister's house more than one month after the abduction. It also questioned "the integrity and veracity" of a habeus corpus appeal issued on behalf of the three men on February 11, at a time when they were being held in unacknowledged military custody. This is disturbing in light of past statements by CHR chair Mary Concepcion Bautista, who in 1988 charged human rights groups with being anti-government, lending credence to military red-labeling and making human rights activists targets for political violence.
The Presidential Human Rights Committee, a cabinet-level consultative body created by President Aquino in December 1988 as a response to the problem of involuntary disappearances, eclipsed the CHR in 1991 by launching several high-profile efforts to investigate human rights cases. The committee was sharply critical of counterinsurgency operations in northern Luzon, and recommended several new legislative and judicial measures on human rights. With representatives from nongovernmental human rights groups, the military and the Justice Department, the group carried authority which the CHR lacked.
Pushed by the committee, the government enacted new guidelines governing the treatment and conditions of release for detainees. It is too soon to tell whether the regulations have prevented disappearances or extrajudicial killings of political detainees, but the reforms appear promising. A memorandum of agreement signed in May states that detainees must be released to a member of the CHR, an attorney chosen by the detainee, or a respected member of the community. It also calls for the creation of an official logbook, open to public inspection, listing those detained and released. Failure to observe the regulations places legal liability squarely on official custodians if a detainee disappears or is killed.
In an attempt to promote prosecution of human rights offenders, the legislature enacted a new, more comprehensive witness protection program, the Republic Act 6981. The program promises housing, job assistance and burial expenses to witnesses agreeing to testify in cases of major crimes, including human rights cases. In August, the Senate offered protection to witnesses of alleged killings and sexual abuse by soldiers in Marag Valley, Kalinga-Apayao province. In the past, fear of retaliation has prevented many witnesses from testifying in human rights cases, making prosecution of offenders difficult.
Asia Watch was encouraged by an April 4 Presidential memorandum governing promotions of the roughly 12,000-member Armed Forces officer corps. Since 1987, the CHR has been permitted to review the human rights record of officers proposed for promotion. The memorandum adds the requirement that the candidate for promotion have no complaint or pending case against him before the CHR.101
Asia Watch found much cause for concern in the military's increasing reliance on paramilitary CAFGUs in combat operations and attacks on suspected leftists. CAFGU members as well as unofficial "vigilante" groups continued to be implicated in a significant proportion of human rights abuses. The military had stepped up recruitment to increase CAFGU forces by an additional ten thousand in 1992.
The continued reliance on private funding of the CAFGUs in Mindanao was especially disturbing. The so-called "Special CAFGU Active Auxiliaries" carried the seal of government approval, but were funded by private landowners and commercial and logging interests, some of whom have used private armies in the past to silence dissent and discourage unionization among workers.
Military red-baiting of legal grassroots organizations continued in 1991, particularly in Davao and Cebu cities, where such assertions by military officials were again aired in the news. In the past, the taint of communist involvement led to acts of violence against members of legal organizations, particularly militant peasants or workers groups, whose main crime appeared to have been their critical view of government policies.
At the end of 1990, the Congress passed a police reform law that disbands the Philippine Constabulary, a paramilitary branch engaged in counterinsurgency operations which was responsible for serious human rights abuses during the Marcos years and under the Aquino government, and gives its members the choice of transferring to the police or military forces. Most members reportedly chose the police, but they were not required to participate in professional retraining. It is not clear how a police force, which the same law assigned combat functions, will differ from the old Philippine Constabulary, especially since many of the same people will be involved.
The Right to Monitor
The Philippines continues to boast arguably the most multifaceted _ and confusing _ set of nongovernmental human rights organizations in the world. The network of human rights monitoring, education and advocacy groups draws its strength from the diverse group of professionals who have devoted their energies to the issue _ from clergy monitoring abuses in their rural church parishes to lawyers and academics drafting human rights reforms at top levels of government _ and from a strong and relatively uncensored press. Advocates in 1991 achieved some success in attaining new legislation and in building public awareness of rights through the media.
However, monitors continued to experience difficulties, particularly in monitoring abuses in heavily militarized areas and in highly charged political court cases. Monitors reported being harassed and intimidated, particularly in areas of armed conflict. Members of monitoring and relief missions reported in July that they had been held involuntarily in military camps for as long as a day, photographed, and ultimately prohibited from delivering medical supplies to communities forcibly displaced by combat operations in Marag Valley, Kalingo-Apayao province. In August, another relief and monitoring mission was prevented from entering a heavily militarized zone in Catalina, Negros Oriental, where hundreds of families were reportedly displaced and living without food or medical assistance.
Problems for monitors were worst in Bicol province, where five leading human rights figures were arrested and charged with subversion following statements on the radio by the highest ranking police official that the human rights organization they were working with was a "communist front organization." Two of the five, attorney Antonio Ayo and attorney Santiago Ceneta, were officers in the regional office of the Task Force Detainees as well as long-standing members of the Free Legal Assistance Group, an internationally acclaimed human rights lawyers group. Both had served as defense attorneys in the recent past for suspected New Peoples Army members; they were arrested after Ayo sent the police a strongly worded response to the public red-labeling, explaining the Task Force Detainee's mission as a campaign against militarism. A third person arrested was an elderly Methodist minister, whom the police claimed had officiated at weddings of New Peoples Army members; the leading organization of Protestant churches in the region wrote a letter denouncing the charges as a "witchhunt."
During the first nine months of 1991, the Bush Administration was largely silent on human rights in the Philippines as it remained singlemindedly focused on the negotiations over the fate of the U.S. military base at Subic Naval Station. The Philippine Senate voted to reject a new treaty on September 17, marking the beginning of the end of nearly a century of U.S. military presence in the country.
Until then the principal Administration statement on human rights in the Philippines was essentially flattering of the Aquino government while condemnatory of the guerrillas. In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs on March 21, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kenneth Quinn stated:
President Aquino has maintained her unwavering commitment to democratic processes and civil liberties despite threats to her government from the left and right. It is important to note that the statistics from independent human rights groups in the Philippines indicate that human rights abuses again declined in 1990. Human rights abuses, however, still do occur. The majority of human rights abuses are committed in connection with the Communist insurgency and related counterinsurgency efforts. The CPP [Communist Party of the Philippines] and the NPA continue to commit widespread human rights abuses in the course of their avowed destablilization campaign against the government. The principal human rights abuses committed by insurgents include extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, and ambushes. Human rights abuses are also committed by members of government forces, although such abuses are not encouraged or condoned by the Philippine Government. The principal human rights abuses committed by members of government forces include extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and torture. Government efforts to punish those responsible for violations have often been ineffective. We carefully monitor the human rights situation in the Philippines. Our Embassy in Manila and Consulate in Cebu raise U.S. concerns and urge the Philippine Government to take action where evidence exists of human rights abuses.
Following the rejection of the bases treaty, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Frank Wisner, publicly criticized the human rights record of the Aquino government. In a few extemporaneous comments after a speech to Philippine lawyers on October 16, he condemned the slow prosecution of human rights offenders and blamed the security forces for "some of the abuses."
An Embassy official also told Asia Watch that the Embassy had made inquiries into several human rights cases, including killings attributed to the Philippine Armed Forces and vigilante activity in Negros and Surigao del Sur. However, this official could not point to any individual case in which formal protests had been lodged.102
The Philippine military continues to rely heavily on U.S. financial and technical support, and was one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid. Of $556 million requested for the Philippines in fiscal year 1991, $140 million was slated for military assistance. Over the past five years, the United States, through the Military Bases Agreement, provided twice the amount the Philippine government set aside for its Armed Forces.103 In September, Philippine military officials said in a public statement that seventy-three percent of its Air Force budget came from the United States.104
The Administration's request for $556 million in aid in fiscal year 1992 matched fiscal year 1991 levels. However, responding to requests by certain Philippine officials that some military aid be diverted to economic assistance, the House Foreign Appropriations Committee voted to transfer $100 million of the requested $200 million in military aid to development assistance.
Despite the House vote, military and economic aid was maintained at the previous year's levels because of a Senate Foreign Appropriations Committee vote to delay all debate on foreign assistance until early 1992, well after the new fiscal year began. Meanwhile, State Department officials have hinted that the Administration's aid requests for fiscal year 1993 might be reduced if the Philippine Congress voted for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces.
U.S. aid to the Philippines in fiscal year 1991 also included $2.6 million under the International Military Education and Training program. A State Department official told Asia Watch that the Administration is considering funding a program of a still undetermined amount through the International Narcotics Matters arm of the Drug Enforcement Agency. It is not yet clear whether this will include police aid.
The Work of Asia Watch
Asia Watch in 1991 continued its efforts to document and respond to the ongoing human rights abuses by all parties to the Philippines conflict. Asia Watch sent appeals to the Philippine government and armed forces expressing concern over continuing threats and harassment encountered by human rights lawyers and over the reported mistreatment of Roberto Roldan, a freelance filmmaker held in detention. Asia Watch also called for an investigation into the October killing of the Rev. Nerilito Satur, a priest in Bukidnon, allegedly by military agents.
Human Rights Watch joined the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California as counsel for the plaintiffs in Sison v. Marcos, a federal lawsuit which alleges human rights abuses by Ferdinand Marcos during his years as ruler of the Philippines. The case promises to set a precedent as the first Alien Tort Claims Act human rights case to go to trial on its merits. It is one of several cases _ including a class action on behalf of all Philippine victims of torture, disappearance and summary execution during martial law _ that, most likely, will be tried together in Hawaii in 1992.
Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 30, 1991.
Letter from James J. Foster, First Secretary, U.S. Embassy, Manila, dated October 2, 1991.
See William Branigin, "Philippine Military Bucking Senators, Urges Retention of U.S. Naval Base," The Washington Post, August 19, 1991.