August 28, 2006

Guimaras oil spill and bad governance

The images of oil-drenched beaches, mangroves, sea creatures and stoic fisher folk caused by the biggest oil spill affecting the once idyllic Guimaras Island off Iloilo province are heart-wrenching. Not knowing any better, we would be cursing our bad luck or whatever destructive fate the gods have chosen to bestow upon our seemingly hapless country.

But outside of the bad weather, none of the factors that caused the sinking of the Solar I, an oil tanker owned by Sunshine Maritime Development Corp. and chartered by Petron, were natural and uncontrollable. Of course, blame may be assigned to the captain of the ship for having decided to continue the trip despite precarious weather conditions. The same or even more so can be laid on a neglectful and corrupt government, its lax regulatory mechanisms as well as on its gross ill preparedness for handling such man-made disasters.

Prevention is certainly better than cure, more so when it comes to damage to the natural environment. The fact that the tanker hired by Petron to transport 2.4 million liters of oil is a single-hulled one increased the risk of spillage of toxic material once oil containers were breached. A senator has looked into the financial health of the tanker owner and is unimpressed that it had the necessary capitalization and operating funds to guaranty the safety of its cargo load. Has the highly profitable oil company, Petron, been scrimping on safety measures and the public welfare?

Current shipping routes are not set with the objective of protecting sensitive marine areas such as the Guimaras Strait, home to one of the most productive fishing grounds in the country as well as a popular tourist attraction with its white sand beaches, marine sanctuaries, unspoiled coral reefs and mangrove forests. Has the government been sleeping on the job, as usual, or perhaps their regulatory powers have been effectively neutralized by consideration from crass commercial interests.

Most disturbing has been the excruciatingly slow response of government, Petron and Sunshine Maritime with an underlying tendency to finger-point as to who should do what and, most especially, who foots the initial clean-up, the relief operations for displaced coastline communities, not to mention the long-term rehabilitation bill.

It took two weeks and the hue and cry from environment groups, the Guimaras local government and the Philippine Coast Guard before Malacañang stopped dragging its feet and created a multi-agency task force to deal with the national emergency. Petron chose to ignore Coast Guard warnings that the leakage was a continuing one and was very quiet about its liabilities while it trumpeted providing emergency livelihood to farmers turned clean-up crew. The ship owner was nowhere to be found.

But the worst is yet to come. Its a race against time to plug the leak in the submerged tanker or suck out the remaining fuel from it. Otherwise, the initial serious and long-term damage done to the marine ecosystem in Guimaras could envelope the entire Visayas region. Already three coastal communities in Negros Occidental have been adversely affected and Cebu is seriously threatened.

Times like this, even a staunch opponent of the Arroyo administration would wish that government will get its act together, do whatever needs to be done with dispatch, in an organized way and with maximum effect.

Alas, that may be asking too much if we go by Malacañang track record and the most recent pronouncements of the besieged president, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Note that were not talking here about the recent massacre of the impeachment process against Mrs. Arroyo on charges of stealing public funds, cheating her way to the presidency, lying to the nation through a grand cover-up, and willfully allowing a policy of extrajudicial killings in her all-out war policy against the Left in this country.

(As an aside, that apparently, was a lesson in realpolitik courtesy of the grizzled, cynical and highly-rewarded pro-GMA, anti-impeachment House Majority. Here is their superficially erudite line: they had the overwhelming numbers to defeat the impeachment petition; to hell with determining the truth, achieving justice and resolving the political impasse gripping the nation through the only remaining, strictly constitutional means available. Thank you, honorable men and women of the 13th Congress.)

At this point allow us to take some recent examples of what kind of governance the Arroyo regime is capable of.

The evacuation of thousands of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) endangered by the highly destructive Israeli bombardment of Hezbollah-controlle d territories in Lebanon was marked by interminable delays, disorganization, recrimination, unavailable funds and a pathetic dependence on international charity and humanitarian aid.

At the end of the day, the OFWs were lucky to be back alive, with nothing to show for their misadventures abroad but their scrappy belongings and forlorn looks. Indeed, the future looks bleak except for Mrs. Arroyos promise to retrain them to become "super maids" and thereby up their chances of getting rehired in the war-riddled Middle East. Too bad there are still no jobs for them right here.

As to the nursing board exams leakage, Malacañang decided, after the controversy grew larger and more stinky, that there will be no retake of the tainted part of the licensure examinations because, according to the pragmatic words of Executive Secretary Ermita, the "sin of a few" cheaters should not be visited on the majority of examinees who are honest.

Considering that the leakage appeared to involve several board examiners, the head of the Philippine Nurses Association, a score of deans of nursing schools and several review centers, it is not just the integrity of the last board exams that has been compromised but the future of the bourgeoning industry producing nurses for US and UK hospitals. (Not that such an outcome is necessarily bad but thats for another column.)

Such a dire scenario should have been a cause for worry to an administration that knows that the Philippine economy is being kept afloat by OFW remittances (including those from hundreds of thousands of nurses).

Unfortunately, the latest Malacañang decision merely reflects the deep erosion of moral values and standards of the current political leadership of this country.

Good fruit cannot come from a rotten tree. ###

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August 17, 2006

Amnesty International report, an indictment

Nobel Peace Prize winner Amnesty International’s 15 August 2006 report entitled “Philippines: Political killings, Human Rights and the Peace Process” (go to for full report) is a well researched, balanced, comprehensive and therefore insightful report on the current human rights situation that no government in its rightful mind can or will dismiss. Sad to say, the uniform reaction from Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s men is exactly that, defensive denial of any fault on government’s part and angry dismissal of the AI report as “blanket accusations” and “one-sided” in favor of the communist movement.

Contrary to Malacaňang’s fulminations, the AI report clearly and objectively states its conclusions, to wit: “The attacks, mostly carried out by unidentified men who shoot the victims before escaping on motorcycles, have very rarely led to the arrest, prosecution and punishment of those responsible. AI believes that the killings constitute a pattern and that a continuing failure to deliver justice to the victims represents a failure by the Government of the Philippines to fulfil its obligation to protect the right to life of every individual in its jurisdiction.”

AI then proceeds to substantiate these conclusions not just with reports from Philippine rights groups deemed biased by Mrs. Arroyo’s defenders but with an extensive review of UN assessments of the Philippine human rights record and reports from other independent rights monitoring and advocacy groups including the Asian Human Rights Commission, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Reporters Sans Frontieres and the World Council of Churches. AI also takes into full account official pronouncements and actions of the Arroyo government such as Mrs. Arroyo’s formation of Task Force Usig, her SONA condemnation of the killings and call for witnesses to come forward and her most recent 10-week deadline for the police resolution of at least 10 outstanding cases of extajudicial killings.

But more than this, to the consternation of former military general and now Executive Secretary Ermita, Defense Secretary Cruz, Local Governments Secretary Puno, Presidential spokesman Bunye and assorted police and military officials, the AI report says that the threat of further killings intensified due to political developments in 2006 including the declaration of a State of Emergency (PP 1017) in late February and the continuing collapse of the peace process.

AI recognized the serious implications, since PP 1017, of the warrantless arrests or threatened arrests of a wide array of suspects from across the political spectrum with the “primary target” appearing to be the CPP-NPA and progressive leftist parties. The latter were publicly accused by senior government officials of being “front organizations” of illegal armed groups and rebellion charges are being relentlessly pursued against prominent Leftists inside and outside Parliament.

According to AI, “As senior officials and military officers labelled members of the legal left ‘enemies of the state’ and failed to condemn the killings consistently at all levels of government, fears grew that elements within the armed forces might interpret this as a tacit signal that political killings were a legitimate part of the anti-insurgency campaign.”

Such fears were well founded. AI recognizes at least 51 political killings that took place in the first half of 2006, compared to the 66 killings it recorded in the whole of 2005.

An essential component of the AI report is a historical backgrounder on armed conflict and human rights in the Philippines and the impact of the peace process, in particular the inking of a Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL) between the government and the National Democratic Front.

According to the highly respected international human rights body, “In the absence of a ceasefire agreement, the CARHRIHL was seen as a key instrument not only to address continuing patterns of abuses occurring within the context of the continuing conflict, but as a measure to build trust and confidence and so strengthen the momentum of the peace process.”

The organization ended its report with a call on the Philippine government to implement Amnesty International’s 14-Point Program for the Prevention of Extrajudicial Executions.

In a stinging rebuke of the Arroyo administration’s lack of political will to put a stop the the extrajudicial kllings, AI urged Philippine authorities to “reiterate a clear, unequivocal message to all members of the police, military and other security forces that involvement in, or acquiescence to, such unlawful killings will never be tolerated. All such cases must be fully and promptly investigated and all those responsible, whether linked to the armed forces or not, brought to justice. Only in this manner can public confidence in the impartial and effective administration of justice be restored and a peace process, with respect for human rights by all sides at its heart, be revived.”

Unless Mrs. Arroyo’s bright boys can find a way to cast doubt on the integrity of Amnesty International’s report, perhaps by labelling it as a product of insidious Leftist propaganda efforts, nothing less than a stop to the killings and punishment of the perpetrators can counter this latest indictment of the Arroyo regime.###

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August 11, 2006

Understanding the war in Lebanon

The impact on the Philippines of fresh fighting in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon where a full-scale war has erupted between the Israeli Defense Forces and the Hezbollah has mainly been felt through the ordeals of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) working in Lebanon and another round of steep increases in fuel prices. Of course, the horrors of war are brought home to us by photos of lifeless bodies of children and entire families being dug out of the rubble of their homes or places of refuge.

But the reasons for the new outbreak in fighting elude most. In fact, a cursory reading of the news gives one the impression that the Palestinian organization Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah started it all – they who are said to have sneakily gone across the border into neighboring Israel to kill and capture Israeli soldiers.

The history and the current issues surrounding the creation of a Jewish state in the heart of the Arab Muslim world, most especially the continuing displacement and inhumane work and living conditions imposed on the Palestinian people by Israel, are hugely complex and complicated further by the overweening presence of the US, Israel’s principal backer, and the source of $4 B in yearly aid and the most sophisticated nuclear and non-nuclear weaponry.

These issues are inadequately ventilated, if not grossly oversimplified or distorted in mainstream Western media, the filter through which most of us get our piddling dose of the international news that is eventually picked up in the local mass media. Yet certain things stand out despite the inevitable fog of war, including the accompanying lop-sided propaganda war being waged, that a fair-minded and serious person can make out.

And that is, it is overwhelmingly the Lebanese people – civilians – who are getting killed by the hundreds and wounded by the thousands, with one third of the casualties being children. A million more or one fourth of the population, have been displaced and in real danger of being pulverized by the precision-guided bombs that the Israeli military has been indiscriminately raining down on them.

In contrast, Israeli casualties have been limited to a few scores and still mostly soldiers, as the Hezbollah have proven to be no pushovers despite their being largely outgunned, without an air or naval force, their military arm a mere guerilla force face to face with one of the most well-trained and deadly armed forces in the world.

Civilian infrastructure in Southern Lebanon has been massively destroyed like homes and whole villages, hospitals and schools, water and electrical facilities, public buildings and offices, industrial complexes, airports, roads and bridges. A humanitarian crisis of major proportions is already on hand with stricken areas isolated by the Israeli military’s deliberate destruction of roads and bridges, closing off escape routes for refugees (the Hezbollah have not turned tail and continue to fight) as well as passageways for humanitarian aid and relief workers.

And yet Israel refuses any ceasefire. It wants to destroy as much of Southern Lebanon, Hezbollah’s stronghold, as it can. It wants to reduce this area into a depopulated wasteland, euphemistically termed a “buffer zone”. Only after having done so will the Israeli government consider Israel safe from any future attacks by the Hezbollah. Only then will it agree to an UN-brokered ceasefire that will even mobilize an international force to help safeguard this “buffer zone” for them and keep the Lebanese out.

It is backed up in this strategy by the United States even as US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice appears busy doing shuttle diplomacy to allegedly broker a ceasefire and gives press conferences with an appropriate somber face ruing the civilian casualties in the raging conflict.

The US has in fact vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel and has opposed calls for an immediate ceasefire. According to reports, the US is further intensifying its interventionist role by rushing the delivery to Israel of precision-guided bombs capable of massive destruction. The US strategic geopolitical interests in this oil-rich part of the world are once again revealed as it cynically utilizes Israel’s latest war of aggression in its drive to eliminate all opposition to US dominance in the region.

Both Israel and the US, with the help of Western media owned and controlled by pro-Israel US and Jewish interests, have persisted in obscuring the fact that the all-out military response of Israel over the earlier capture of a few of its soldiers is grossly disproportionate, unwarranted and unjustified. It is instead a mere pretext for massive air, naval and ground attacks against the civilian populations of Lebanon and Palestine, considered as “necessary collateral damage” in the overall scheme of driving out, if not annihilating, both Hezbollah and Hamas.

According to the International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS),

“In accordance with international law, the three captured Israeli soldiers are prisoners of war (POWs). They are not victims of kidnapping or hostaging. The Israeli government is using them as pawns in its attempt to crush all popular resistance in Lebanon and Palestine. The Olmert government in Israel refuses to conduct any negotiations for the release of the captured soldiers or for the exchanges of POWs. (Israel is holding more than 9,000 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners.) Instead, the Zionists are engaging in collective punishment by ordering attacks on Lebanese and Palestinian civilian populations. At the beginning of the war, Israeli’s Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said, “Nothing is safe in [Lebanon], it’s as simple as that.”

Thus the ILPS minced no words in condemning “(t)hese unbridled acts of international terrorism emboldened and supported by US imperialism.”

Filipinos must strive to understand the real reasons behind the crises engulfing the Middle East region, a favorite destination of OFWs desperately trying to escape the poverty and economic dead-end back home, if we are to break free from always being victimized by forces seemingly beyond our control.

Business World
11-12 August 2006

August 05, 2006

Skepticism over GMA pronouncements

A week after Mrs. Gloria-Macapagal Arroyo's State-of-the-Nation (SONA) wherein she condemned political killings, urged witnesses to come forward and promised to stop extrajudicial executions, six more people, five of them identified with the Leftist national democratic movement, and one, a photojournalist and relative of a reporter murdered last May, lay dead,
felled once more by assassins' bullets.

Only the three latest killings merited front page stories. Perhaps it was because they all happened in just one day and the victims were not so dirt-poor and faceless -- a 21-year-old League of Filipino Students (LFS) leader in Bicol, the Bayan Muna Coordinator for Kalinga who was the wife of a prominent physician and civic leader in Tabuk, and a media practitioner in Metro Manila.

Mrs. Arroyo's response was significant in that for the first time she gave the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Justice Department a deadline, 10 weeks, within which to solve some of the killings. The concerned officials dutifully said they would try to comply with the directive of Mrs. Arroyo.

Nonetheless, why is Mrs. Arroyo's latest pronouncement, like her SONA three-liner and her creation of the PNP Task Force Usig several months ago, met with even more skepticism?

Let's set aside the general problem of the Arroyo administration's credibility generated by its unsatisfactory, to say the least, handling of serious charges of electoral fraud, corrupt government deals and the tyrannical abuse of executive powers. Let us not even venture into recalling the many times she has made promises with such dramatic flourish only to renege on them so blatantly later on.

Let us zero in specifically on the question of violations of civil and political rights under Mrs. Arroyo's watch. Why is it that we know that this government is not to be believed when it says it will stop political killings?

First, the killings don't stop. The facts speak for themselves.

Second, there is no credible, much less speedy, investigation of the killings, the involuntary disappearances and the claims of torture while in the hands of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) or PNP. The reasons the authorities provide are questionable and self-serving. If we are to believe the excuses they routinely dish out, the government's ludicrous inutility in the face of this patent breakdown of law and order is further exposed.

Government says there are no witnesses. Certainly, few witnesses will dare testify even at the investigation stage because they inevitably become the next target of harassment if not fall victim to being killed themselves. More to the point, government investigators are suspect because of the common perception that the police, military or their assets are involved as part of national security policy and the current counter-insurgency program, Oplan Bantay Laya, not to mention their unenviable track record as human rights violators.

But are the only means available to government investigators the reliance on witnesses to the actual killing? What about the physical and circumstantial evidence? What about information from kin, co-workers and associates about probable motive and possible suspects? When state forces are implicated, why do the investigations stop dead in their tracks?

Earlier attempts by victims or relatives to file charges have only resulted in endless delays at the Justice Department, the inexplicable dismissal or downgrading of charges and not a single conviction.

Then there is the clear, unequivocal message sent to all concerned when implicated AFP or PNP officials are promoted and, for the special few, lauded ever so publicly during the Commander-in-Chief's SONA.

Sometimes there is someone brave or foolish enough to be a witness. Take the case of the two female UP students and their companion who are alleged to have been taken by military men in Bulacan more than a month ago. A 14-year-old boy provided an eyewitness account. A writ of habeas corpus was issued by the Court of Appeals for military officials in the area of responsibility to produce the three missing persons but the response of AFP Chief of Staff General Esperon is to scoff at the court order and deny that they have the three in their custody.

The third basis for our skepticism is the overarching frame of "all-out war" against the Left that Mrs. Arroyo, her generals and the most virulent anti-communists in her inner circle have embraced as the ultimate solution to the decades-old, communist-led revolutionary armed struggle in this country.

Recently the PNP Spokesperson said there is no government policy that says "specifically or even implicitly, run after them" (i.e. unarmed activists and progressives referred to as the legal Left). Instead he says that there is an aggressive policy to break the spine of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People's Army, through intensified military operations and legal offensives.

What the official doublespeak doesn't say, however, is that legal activists are considered by the government as communist rebels in sheep's clothing; that is, they are accused to be merely fronting for the communists, are therefore equally guilty of rebellion and ergo are fair targets of
government's all-out war.

We can come to no other conclusion than this: unarmed political opponents of the Arroyo regime using their ideas, words and bodies to express their political beliefs are treated as legitimate military targets, human rights covenants and international humanitarian law be hanged.

According to the report of the International Fact Finding Mission (IFFM) organized by Dutch and Belgian lawyers groups in June, "To this date, the Arroyo administration rejects national and international criticism on its human rights record, by simply referring to its democratic institutions and human rights treaties, laws and policies."

"Taking into account that all democratic institutions are formally in place, the IFFM considers the situation especially alarming. This makes it abundantly clear that either the constitutional state does not function properly or that there are powers undermining its proper functioning."

To paraphrase the IFFM report, until and unless the Arroyo regime agrees to constitute and fully support an independent body, i.e. not controlled by the government, to investigate the killings, threats and harassment and to follow its recommendations, all its bombastic statements mean next to nothing.

Business World
5-6 August 2006