February 01, 2007

Melo Commission: still no surprises

The Melo Commission created by the Arroyo administration to address extrajudicial killings of activists and journalists has submitted its 89-page report to Mrs. Arroyo but she has so far refused to make it public. All we know about it are the initial, off-the-cuff comments by the commission’s chairman and a bishop-member to the media, subsequent Malacanang press releases and Mrs. Arroyo’s pretentious, if rather smug, statements to the diplomatic corps during the traditional vin d’honneur at the Presidential Palace.

The refusal of Malacanang to release the report for the scrutiny of all interested parties, not least of all the aggrieved kin of victims of summary executions, attempted killings and enforced disappearances, is a telling indicator of Mrs. Arroyo’s sincerity and seriousness in her avowal to put an end to these human rights violations and punish those responsible. It is important to point out that while the Melo Commission report is kept under wraps, with only alleged parts of it revealed piecemeal as suits the purposes of Malacanang, there can not be any meaningful nor even worthwhile response to it except that of continuing caution, if not skepticism.

What the human rights organizations, progressive and militant groups whose ranks are being decimated by the killings and abductions, as well as the general public have to go by, are what is already known about the Melo Commission‘s composition, powers, predilections and biases, and methods of investigation. On this basis, an informed opinion can be made about what the commission is capable of concluding and recommending in its final report to Mrs. Arroyo. The overwhelming perception, then and now, is that the commission has lacked the independence, credibility, powers and funding to come up with any significant report but that its findings would likely be used to further whitewash any government culpability.

For example, much has been made of Mr. Melo’s revelation that a “majority of the victims were leftist-activist-militants” and that the suspected assailants belonged to the military. At the risk of sounding facetious, apart from journalists killed, wasn’t the Commission supposed to look precisely into the killings of this particular category of people? And how could it have concluded otherwise about the involvement of military men as assailants without appearing to be deaf, blind and dumb to the glaring facts and the clear pattern of said killings that can be gleaned even from newspaper reports.

But Mr. Melo is quick to say, “We don’t want to tag the entire military establishment, only elements of the military who were allowed to do their thing without supervision from higher authorities.” So there it is, the built-in limitation of the so-called independent commission of inquiry that was implicit upon its creation: the premise that the extrajudicial killings cannot be part of state policy, that these have nothing to do with the Arroyo regime’s vow of “all-out war against the Left” and its latest counter-insurgency programs, Oplan Bantay Laya I and II, which speaks of “neutralizing” and “dismantling” the communist movement’s legal, political infrastructure with a clear plan to “target” specific key individuals, leaders and organizers of legal, militant mass organizations.

Furthermore, without seeing the complete report, it is reasonable to conclude from Mr. Melo’s statements to the media, that the indictment of Gen. Jovito Palparan for “command responsibility” is the farthest the commission has gone in determining guilt for the killings. Why did the Melo Commission go this far in its findings and what are its implications?

It would appear that 1) Mr. Palparan’s involvement is too glaring that the Melo Commission had no choice but to indict him to gain some credibility; 2) the Arroyo regime needs a credible and dramatic scapegoat; and 3) the crime of “command responsibility” is in fact a much lesser offense than directly ordering the perpetration of such fascist crimes. In fact, Mr. Palparan had already admitted to “inspiring” his men and some civilians to go after the communist rebels and their supporters. Reading between the lines, Mr. Palparan seems to be saying that those he “inspired” may have killed some people in their understandable overzealousness.

But until concrete steps are taken by the Arroyo government to charge, prosecute and punish Mr. Palparan even for the lesser crime of command responsibility, this most sensational recommendation of the Melo Commission is merely grist for the Malacanang propaganda mill, eager to give the impression to the European Union and the international human rights community that Mrs. Arroyo is taking decisive measures to put an end to the killings and to curb the impunity of their perpetrators.

Already, Mrs. Arroyo is using the Melo Commission report to repeat before the diplomatic corps the barefaced lie that her regime does not tolerate the killings, has the will to stop them and punish those responsible. She can also assert that that “99.99% of the military are good, hardworking and patriotic” and thus cannot be a party to such barbarity. The AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Esperon, while finally admitting that some military men are involved, is quick to point out to other, more likely, perpetrators, “the CPP/NPA and goons of politicians” and that, so far, only six soldiers had been charged with the majority of cases already dismissed. In other words, Mr. Esperon reminds us not to overblow this finding of the Melo Commission.

The six orders issued by Mrs. Arroyo ring hollow. She instructs the Melo Commission to continue its work without informing the public about what exactly her hand-picked commission has achieved. She directs the Defense Department and the AFP to submit an “updated document on command responsibility” when the generals, as exemplified by Mr. Palparan all the way up to Mr. Esperon and even the Commander-in-Chief, Mrs. Arroyo herself, are the ones on the line and have every reason to find a way to escape or limit their accountabilities.

Mrs. Arroyo’s directive to the Justice and Defense Departments to coordinate with the constitutionally independent but practically toothless Commission on Human Rights in forming a fact-finding body to “delve deeper into the matter of involvement of military personnel in unexplained killings…” makes a mockery of the pursuit of truth and justice. These government agencies put at the helm of further investigations have been proven to have a major interest and involvement in frustrating any honest-to-goodness investigation.

One of the critical powers that should have been immediately given to the Melo Commission was that of giving protection to witnesses. Thus the belated order to the DOJ to expand its witness protection program to include those in extrajudicial killings is not just a case of “too little, too late” it has already been proven useless. In the murder cases filed by the families of human rights worker Eden Marcellana and Eddie Gumanoy versus Gen. Palparan, Sergeant Donald Caigas and several civilian assets, the witnesses received not an iota of protection from the DOJ and were exposed to tremendous pressure and continuing harassment from suspected military agents until the cases were dismissed.

Lastly, the invitation to the EU to send investigators to assist in the Melo Commission’s work is nothing new. Mrs. Arroyo had issued a similar call after her shameful sojourn to Europe last year but nothing came of it since it appeared the government merely wanted the foreign investigators to grace the commission’s hearings and lend it credibility.

Mrs. Arroyo, the Cabinet Oversight Committee for Internal Security and military and police generals think themselves clever in being able to evade, once more, responsibility for the killings, whether direct or indirect, given the Melo Commission’s damage control. Nonetheless, wittingly or unwittingly, the commission implicates Mrs. Arroyo herself in its indictment of Gen. Palparan, due to the generous rewards (i.e. rapid promotion to plum posts) and lavish praise heaped on him by Mrs. Arroyo.

Meantime, despite flak about their refusal to cooperate with the Melo Commission, the victims, their families and advocates, have been proven correct in refusing to be a tool in the Arroyo regime’s deadly game of deception. They must seek justice elsewhere as well as work for the ouster of a regime that has its hands bloodied by repeated and unabated acts of murder and their most foul cover-up.###

*Published in Business World
2-3 February 2007


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