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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.

The Filipino Culture of Impunity

chris_maughnBy Christopher Maughan

Today I was finally going to publish my introductory post, the one that says “here I am in the Philippines and this is what I’ve been doing over the last few weeks. Working at the Ateneo Human Rights Center has been an enriching experience, I’m learning a lot, and I think I’m finally adapting to the culture…”

All of that is true. But today I want to write about something else: three local journalists killed in less than a week, just for speaking their minds.

Gunned down in public. Even though such killings have happened many times before, I can’t believe the news.

I didn’t know what to say after the first two journalists were killed, hence the absence of a blog post on the subject. I was shocked. I still am, especially now that a third journalist has died, but I feel an obligation to write something on the subject to draw people’s attention to the news since it hasn’t been making headlines in Canada.

The first killing happened five days ago. Desidario Camangyan, a radio reporter who had criticized the government for turning a blind eye to illegal logging practices, was shot while hosting an amateur singing contest. His wife and son were in the audience.

Less than 24 hours later, Joselito Agustin, another radio broadcaster, was shot and killed while on his way home from work. Like Camangyan, Agustin had spoken out against government corruption.

This weekend, Nestor Bedolido, a newspaper reporter, was shot and killed as he was buying cigarettes from a street vendor. Belodido was supposedly behind a number of scathing exposes written about an allegedly corrupt politician in Davao del Sur.

So far no one has been arrested and all but one of the suspects are unidentified.

The killings bring the number of journalists killed in the Philippines to 107 – and that’s just in the last nine years, since President Gloria Arroyo took power in 2001. Since the inception of democracy in 1986, 140 have been killed in total.

Before posting some news links and a few thoughts, I should mention that all of this comes only seven months after the Maguindanao Massacre, in which 32 journalists lost their lives for taking political action, for merely deigning to defy a local “politician-warlord” who had maintained a stranglehold on power through corruption and intimidation.

News links are below (links are posted first; my thoughts are underneath), with a Wikipedia entry on the Massacre that links to stories published in late 2009. About a week and a half ago, an activist came into our office with pictures of the victims of Maguindanao – they were by far the most shocking images I have ever seen.

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/nation/view/20100621-276729/Another-journalist-killed
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/21/world/asia/21iht-phils.html
http://cpj.org/2010/06/another-radio-journalist-killed-in-the-philippines.php
http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/topstories/topstories/view/20100615-275715/Radioman-shot-dead-in-Davao-Oriental
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maguindanao_massacre

So that’s the news. Here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, given the circumstances, there’s little doubt that these killings are politically motivated. The two most recent ones meet the profile of the typical Filipino political killing: a gunman walks up to the victim in the middle of the street, fires, and rides away on the back of a motorcycle that’s waiting nearby. Too many journalists, lawyers and activists have been killed this way, usually after expressing criticism of the government or left-wing political views. Too few of the men and women behind these killings have been brought to justice – there have only been a handful of convictions.

Second, it’s disheartening that even after a UN Special Rapporteur report on extrajudicial (that is, illegal and political) killings in the Philippines, a local commission-of-inquiry report on the matter, the creation of a national Commission on Human Rights, and the creation of a national police task force, extrajudicial killings continue to take place – and the perpetrators seem as bold as ever. Some of the gunmen don’t even hide their faces – a telling sign that they know they can count on a culture of impunity.

Like the Maguindanao Massacre, I guess this series of killings reflects what is often the reality of human rights legal work – you can set up all the commissions and send all the rapporteurs you want, you can write reports, you can call people out in the press, but things will not change overnight. That said, there are signs that extrajudicial killings generally are tapering off – there are fewer per year now than there were in 2006, when there were 209 in total. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is slow and incremental change.

This week, though, it feels like change cannot come soon enough.

I want to end on a positive note. The Ateneo Human Rights Center is doing a lot to help prevent extrajudicial killings and give prosecutors and investigators the tools they need to obtain convictions. In addition to the academic research I’m doing for the Center, I’m involved in two really interesting projects to this end. First, I’m involved in the planning of a national public awareness campaign; staff from the Center will be holding public forums on extrajudicial killings at over 60 locations all across the country. Second, I’m helping with the creation of Multi-Sectoral Quick Reaction Teams, which are locally-based collectives of legal and human rights experts who come together to provide support to victims when an extralegal killing takes place.

I feel extremely privileged to be able to help out with these initiatives. Hopefully, along with this week’s bad news, they’ll get people thinking about how to dismantle the infrastructure of impunity that allows violations of rights to life and free expression to keep happening.

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