August 21, 2004

Matching words with action

All's well that ends well, or so it seems with the uneventful, safe release of two military men held as, in the parlance of their erstwhile captors the Romulo Jallores Command of the New People's Army, prisoners of war. The white t-shirts they wore as they walked to freedom bore the unmistakable letters "POW."

Why is the NPA insistent on using the term "POW?"

Luis Jalandoni, chairman of the National Democratic Front (NDF) Negotiating Panel, minced no words when he said that the two, being combatants captured in a tactical offensive carried out by the NPA on March 1, 2004, were considered as hors de combat (unable to fight) when they surrendered. Thereafter, they were treated as POWs and "accorded humane treatment in accordance with the NPA's long-standing policy of lenient treatment toward prisoners of war, the Geneva Conventions and Protocols, and the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL)."

The NDF has again scored propaganda points by releasing the two POWs held by the NPA for more than five months. It is ironic that the Arroyo administration has so far failed to do better or at least match the same treatment accorded government soldiers by a group it calls "terrorist."

The NPA may be accused of merely engaged in a publicity gimmick with the release of the two POWs on Aug. 18, but the government can do better beyond its usual knee-jerk reactions.

The release speaks for itself: It once more underscored the big difference in the conduct of war by the two warring forces, with the NDF pursuing efforts to adhere to international rules of war and, on the other hand, the government failing or refusing to act on reports of military atrocities committed against NPA captives as well as innocent civilians merely suspected to be NPA sympathizers.

Instead of at least minimizing the NDF's propaganda mileage in the POWs' release, government played a clumsy game by holding and interrogating at a checkpoint journalists covering the event.

Captured in a gun battle last March in Tinambac, Camarines Sur, Army 1Lt. Ronaldo Fidelino and Pfc. Ronel Nemeno were supposed to be released as early as June, but military authorities refused to heed NPA demands that, for the sake of the two soldiers' safe release, the AFP and police declare a temporary suspension of operations in designated areas in Bicol.

By their own admission during an interview with a Bicol reporter, Fidelino and Nemeno said they were treated well by their captors. Early this week, the Arroyo administration finally declared a suspension of military and police operations in Bicol thus allowing an NPA custodial team to hand over the two soldiers to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Theirs is the latest in a series of releases of POWs done by the NPA, in coordination with the NDF, over the past several years. The releases involved both ordinary soldiers as well as senior AFP officials, including a general who was set free in Mindanao about five years ago. Many of those released talked about how they came to know of the NPA's revolutionary cause in a way that enabled them to correct previous misimpressions about the organization. Their military superiors could only rebut by saying that their soldiers might have been victims of the Stockholm syndrome.

But what has been government's response to the NDF? It promoted one of the most notorious violators of human rights tagged by rights watchdogs as the "Butcher of Mindoro" -- Jovito Palparan. Despite charges filed with the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the Justice department and Congress, Palparan has been promoted twice in just one year -- from colonel, to brigadier general and now, after heading the Philippine contingent in Iraq, to a two-star general as chief of staff of the Army.

We have received reports from the provinces, verified by either human rights groups or even local officials of the CHR and local government executives, of NPA guerillas who had surrendered after a gunbattle being shot at close range or left to bleed to death without being treated. I have read a report by Karapatan, a human rights alliance watch, of a farmer who was abducted on mere suspicion of being an NPA sympathizer, then tortured, stabbed several times and left for good inside a village chapel with his hands tied to his back. Other reports talk of minors killed by indiscriminate firing by troopers and of children along with their parents who were arrested and beaten up.

Many of such incidents are now subject of more than 100 cases filed with the Joint Monitoring Committee, the group formed by both government and the NDF to monitor the implementation of CARHRIHL. Many of the cases were first brought to the attention of the CHR, the Department of Justice and even Congress, but nothing much came out of these efforts. Appeals to the President to have the cases investigated were futile.

Unless government does something positive with such cases, it will confirm and fortify allegations by the NDF that in the context of the peace process, the state has not fulfilled its obligations under the CARHRIHL and other agreements forged so far by the two parties. We have yet to see government upholding the two Oslo joint agreements signed early this year that provide for the immediate release of a number of political prisoners, the indemnification of some 10,000 torture victims of the Marcos dictatorship and the removal of the "terrorist" listing of NDF chief political consultant Jose Ma. Sison as well as the CPP and NPA.

Failure to do so only strengthens speculations that either the Arroyo administration lacks the political will, or civilian supremacy is being undermined by the rabidly anti-communist AFP or both.

Unfortunately, the militarists in the Arroyo policy circles have this flimsy fear that by seriously implementing peace agreements or treating NPA suspects and prisoners humanely, government will only support the NDF's claim to belligerency status.

On the contrary, government should not even refer to the peace process as a starting point for upholding international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions on the rights of combatants and civilians. Justice and respect for human rights is beyond the peace talks process; every human being on earth is supposed to have his or her rights respected, including the right to life and humane treatment even during times of war, regardless of ideology and so on.

But then, that is a tall order. As far as rights watchdogs in the Philippines -- and Amnesty International and the UN Commission on Human Rights -- are concerned, the Arroyo government is short on deeds and long on talk in upholding human rights. Perhaps, the government can start correcting this record by first implementing CARHRIHL earnestly and seriously.

Aug. 20-21, 2004


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