Monday, September 27, 2010

Where’s the Truth Commission on Human Rights Abuses?

By Siesta-friendly

From Argentina to the U.S., truth commissions have been established to reveal human rights violations and violators.  The Philippines is up there in world rankings relating to human rights abuses.  We rank 3rd - after Iraq and Somalia – in the CPJ’s (Committee to Protect Journalists) 2010 Global Impunity Index (of countries “where journalists are slain and killers go free”).[1]

In 2009, the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) included the Philippines in its report on 8 of “the most troubled places in the world … which are either experiencing situations of armed conflict or armed violence or suffering their aftermath”.[2]  We are in the list together with Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon and Liberia.

In 2007, the UN was already so concerned that they sent Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, “prompted by reports of a large number of extrajudicial killings, especially of leftist activists and journalists, over the past six years or so.”[3] 

Also in 2007, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), sent a fact-finding mission because of [“i]ncreasing allegations that the Filipino government’s fight against terrorism causes specific human rights violations … The preliminary conclusions of the mission are very worrying: it appears that torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings are common practice in the Philippines …”[4] 

Local human rights group Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights) reports that from 2001-2009 (the Gloria Arroyo regime) there have been 1,188 extrajudicial killings, 208 enforced disappearances, 1,963 illegal arrests (excluding mass arrests) and 288 political prisoners.[5]

Yet despite our notorious human rights record and culture of impunity, the new Aquino government chooses instead to set up a truth commission to uncover corruption. To be fair, our culture of corruption deserves serious focus as well.  But it is telling of our government’s priorities when President Aquino’s 1st State of the Nation Address (last July) enumerated allegations of corruption and no hint of human rights abuses, and his first Executive Order is the establishment of the Truth Commission on corruption with hardly any pronouncement, to date, on the government’s efforts regarding extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

Why are human rights abuses not a top priority?

The need to investigate human rights abuses

On July 12, 2010, a hopeful Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote President Aquino its hopes, concerns and recommendations.[6]  Its first recommendation?  To investigate police and military personnel implicated in killings -

Human Rights Watch has found that police investigators in alleged extrajudicial killing cases often adopt a posture of irresponsible passivity, doing nothing themselves to investigate these crimes and placing the onus entirely on victims' families, many of whom have no idea who murdered their loved one. Police investigators routinely ignore anonymous leads, despite the fear of retaliation that compels witnesses to resort to anonymity.

Instead, investigators have told Human Rights Watch that they will not launch an investigation until someone is brave enough to risk his or her life by delivering a signed statement. Even when victims have allegedly been abducted by security forces, the police typically conduct only a perfunctory search. The Arroyo government made much of the human rights training that is given to the police but the lessons learned in the classroom are quickly unlearned when police officers see that no one is held accountable for such lackluster investigations of human rights abuses.

In your first 60 days in office, you should:

·         Order the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to investigate police and military personal, particularly at the command level, who have been implicated in killings and enforced disappearances.

·         Issue an executive order directing police and NBI investigators to vigorously pursue crimes allegedly committed by government officials and police officers or themselves be subject to disciplinary measures for insubordination or a criminal investigation for obstruction of justice or graft and corruption.

·         Publicly order the chief of the Philippine National Police to open hotlines or comparable lines of communication to receive anonymous information on extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses.

To round up the HRW’s 6 recommendations, here are the remaining 5: 1) Take immediate steps to protect the witnesses to human rights abuses and their families; 2) Pass a law to criminalize and prevent enforced disappearances; 3) Abolish militia forces; 4) Institute tougher controls on local government procurement of weapons; 5) Dismantle "death squads" and investigate government involvement.[7] 

Of course, the HRW is hardly alone.  The UN Special Rapporteur and the FIDH fact-mission recommended effective investigations as well, among other things.   In its report on The State of Human Rights in the Philippines in 2009, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) discussed “[t]he failure to investigate hundreds of political killings attributable to the State” as a topic of concern.[8] Below is a brief summary of their findings.

Government actions

Task Force Usig

In the AHRC report are listed the Arroyo government’s attempts to address extrajudicial killings.  (Unfortunately, only extrajudicial killings have largely been focused on, if at all. There has been no special agency to handle illegal detention or enforced disappearance cases.) 

As reported by the AHRC, Task Force Usig was created in 2006 under the Philippine National Police “to resolve at least 'ten cases of alleged extra-judicial killings within ten weeks'. Over three years later, there is no evidence to suggest that the task force has been able to meet the target.”  The report also notes that “[e]ven if the task force had been able to meet its target of resolving one case a week, in mid-2006 there were already some 700 allegations of political killings and this would have taken the task force 14 years to complete the job.”[9]

Task Force 211

It seemed that Task Force Usig was deemed insufficient because shortly after its creation or in 2007, Task Force 211 under the DOJ (Department of Justice) was created.  As of February 2010, Task Force 211 has only handled 265 cases of extrajudicial killings (versus 1,188 reported by Karapatan), more than half of which are either already archived, cold or dismissed[10] -

I. Archived/ Accused at
II. Cold Cases
III. Dismissed   Cases 
IV. On Trial
V. Under Police Investigation
VI. Under Preliminary Investigation
VII. Terminated (Trial on the Merits)

Special Courts

Also in 2007, the Supreme Court (SC) issued Administrative Order No. 25-2007 (a copy of which we could not find so we are relying on Court of Appeals Associate Justice Lucas P. Bersamin’s “Available Judicial Remedies In Cases Of Extrajudicial Killings And Enforced Disappearances”)[11] for the SC AO’s contents.  The SC designated “about 100 Regional Trial Courts throughout the country as special courts to hear, try and decide cases involving killings of political activists and members of the media.  Such cases are given priority in the trial calendars of the special courts and shall undergo continuous trial (to be terminated within 60 days from the commencement of the hearing) and determined within 30 days from the time the cases are submitted for decision, unless a shorter period is provided by the law or otherwise directed by the Supreme Court. To expedite the proceedings, no postponement or continuance shall be allowed except for clearly meritorious cases.”[12]

AHRC’s report notes that SC has guidelines to the special courts "to include the status of the extra-judicial cases in their monthly report of cases." “Despite the SC's guidelines, however, there are no known monthly status reports available. It is not known whether any sanctions were imposed on judges and court staff as a result.”[13]

To put a long story short, not only do these government efforts fall short of substantially addressing human rights abuses but their existence only emphasize the failure of government avenues normally used for the redress of such abuses.

We need the whole truth and nothing but the truth on all forms of abuses before we can even think of starting afresh.  And so we go back to our initial question: Where’s the truth commission on human rights abuses?

[2]  Summary report: afghanistan, colombia, democratic republic of the congo, georgia, haiti, lebanon, liberia and the philippines. (2009, June). Retrieved from$File/Our%20World%20-%20Views%20From%20Countries%20-%20Summary%20Report%20Part1-BKMRK.pdf
[3]  Alston, P. (2007, March 27). U.N. General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Fourth Session Agenda Item 2, Implementation of general assembly resolution 60/251 of 15 march 2006 entitled “human rights council”. Preliminary note on the visit of the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, philip alston, to the philippines (12-21 february 2007), (A/HRC/4/20/ADD.3). Retrieved from
[4]  International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) Submission for the first session of the Universal Periodic Review 7-18 April 2008 Republic of the Philippines. (2008, April 7-18). Retrieved from
[5]  2009 year-end report on the human rights situation in the philippines. (2009, December 12). Retrieved from
[6] Roth, K. (2010, July 12). Letter to president aquino regarding extrajudicial killings in the philippines. Retrieved from
[7]  Philippines: ending killings should top aquino’s agenda. (2010, July 12). Retrieved from
[8]  The state of Human rights in the philippines in 2009. (2009). Retrieved from
[9]  Ibid, p.8.
[10]  Total number of cases. (2010, February 23). Retrieved from
[11]  Bersamin, L. (n.d.). Available judicial remedies in cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. Retrieved from
[12]  Ibid, p.3
[13]   The state of Human rights in the philippines in 2009, supra; p.10.


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