Aquino’s last chance on human rights

Sandolan scrambled down to the crawl space beneath the house for safety. There, lying on the cold ground, her hands over her mouth to suppress any reflexive screams, she saw the feet of men in military boots and uniform.

“There were too many of them; I couldn’t count,” she told me by telephone from Paquibato, 4 days after the incident. One by one, she said, the uniformed men fired at 3 men who had been staying in her home: Randy Carnasa, Ruben Enlog, and Oligario Quimbo.

“Randy was shot 3 more times while sitting by the stairs outside,” Sandulan said. “He was already wounded and shouted for help. Datu (Enlog) was lying outside and was shot there. Gario was slumped by the fence a few meters away from me. He, too, was shot.” 

The men had  been celebrating the birthday of Sandolan’s daughter, Aida Seisa, the secretary-general of the Paquibato District Peasant Association, when the uniformed men arrived. The 3 men were residents of Paquibato District, a hinterland village of Davao City where there is ongoing fighting between government forces and the communist New People’s Army (NPA).

Enlog, a tribal leader in the district, was known for being critical of the military. He and Carnasa, according to the human rights group Karapatan, had been harassed before by soldiers who suspected them of being NPA members. Quimbo was a relative of Carnasa.

Days after the incident, the military claimed that the victims were NPA guerrillas who were killed in a firefight. Sandulan, along with Karapatan and the families of the victims, dispute the military’s account. The government has not opened an independent inquiry into the killings, so the truth may never be known.

The Paquibato incident is emblematic of the ongoing and unaddressed allegations of  human rights violations by elements of the Philippine military. Stopping these abuses and holding accountable the rights violators in the armed forces are key challenges for President Benigno Aquino III as he enters the last year of his 6-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 by the military and police. However, his 5 years as president have been marked more by rhetoric than concrete action to address serious human rights violations in the Philippinesincluding extrajudicial killingstorture, and enforced disappearances.

In his inaugural speech on June 30, 2010, Aquino gave “marching orders” to the justice department to “begin the process of providing true and complete justice for all.” Human rights violations during the term of his predecessor, President 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.”

There have  been some improvements in the last 5 years – such as the government’s efforts to fix the broken criminal justice system through 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.

But 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, most seriously in “death squad” operations carried out in complicity with local officials such as in Tagum City and other urban areas.

Aquino’s final year in office gives him a last chance to undertake meaningful action to address these human rights abuses. He can start by cracking the whip on the Philippine National Police, particularly Task Force Usig, which is mandated to investigate extrajudicial killings, to improve its investigation and documentation capabilities and submit a regular – preferably monthly – progress report on the status of these cases. 

Aquino should order the justice department to ensure that the interagency “superbody” he created is actually functioning. That will require him to direct the “superbody” to expedite the inventory of the “priority cases” begun in 2012 and to make public the status of these cases, and to require the “superbody” to provide monthly updates on the status of these priority cases and the reasons for any delay in initiating prosecutions.

Aquino should also publicly and explicitly disavow “death squads” that operate under a veneer of legitimate crime control and investigate and appropriately prosecute any government official implicated in extrajudicial killings. 

The clock is ticking on Aquino’s last year in office. Failure to take action against human rights abuses will only ensure a growing body count of victims of unexplained extrajudicial killings – such as Randy Carnasa, Ruben Enlog, and Oligario Quimbo. – Rappler.com 

Carlos H. Conde is the Philippines researcher for Human Rights Watch.