Remembering the desaparecidos

By Luke Brown

My work so far in the Philippines has centred on extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances (EDs), picking up on the work that Chris Maughan did last year with the Ateneo Human Rights Center.

This past week (29 May – 4 June 2011) was the International Week of the Disappeared, an event initiated over 20 years ago by civil society organizations in Latin America. The purpose of the week is to remember the victims of, and shed light on the problem of, enforced disappearances worldwide. This is a major problem that persists in the Philippines.

An ED is when agents of the state, or private individuals working with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the state, abduct a person for political ends. The person (a “desaparecido”) is denied due process rights, and the state generally denies all knowledge of their whereabouts. Sometimes the victim will resurface weeks later, still alive. Other times they will never be seen again.

Victims of ED in the Philippines are generally accused of having links to the New People’s Army, the outlawed military wing of the Community Party of the Philippines (although membership in the Communist Party itself is legal). The government here has been engaged in a protracted counter-insurgency effort against communist rebels for the past 40 years.

However, generally the victims of ED in the Philippines have no link to any armed groups. More often they are simply associated with left-leaning civil society organizations, farmers’ unions, trade unions, or other grassroots organizations.

It’s difficult to measure the scale of the problem. The highest estimate comes from the human rights organization Karapatan, which reported 204 cases of ED from 2001-2009. There hasn’t been a single conviction for these crimes.

Despite widespread criticism from local and international organizations, including from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or abitrary executions, the Philippine government has been slow to respond. On an official institutional level, the greatest progress has arguably been made by the Supreme Court of the Philippines, which has been quite outspoken on the need to take action. In recent years, the Court also crafted two procedural safeguards for victims of EDs and ELKs (although the effectiveness of these safeguards is questionable). I’m currently helping the Ateneo Human Rights Center put together a compilation of domestic and international caselaw on EDs and ELKs, to be used by the Philippine judiciary.

Last week I attended an event in Manila to commemorate the International Week of the Disappeared. This event brought together civil society groups as well as members of the human rights office of the police. It was quite heartening to see such passionate human rights advocates come together – many of whom whose friends or family members had been subjected to an ED – to vocally denounce this practice. (The image above comes from Task Force Detainees of the Philippines.)

However, this event was also a reminder of just how strong the “culture of impunity” is here. EDs are not a secret in the Philippines. They are a well-recognized problem with deep roots in the state’s counter-insurgency strategy. This problem is openly debated by the government, civil society organizations, human rights groups, the military, police and the judiciary; yet progress towards addressing it remains painfully slow.

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