March 29, 2007

Killings as state policy

The truth has a sure, if painfully slow, way of coming out in the open. In the past couple of weeks, two highly significant events in the international arena, taking place one after the other, have put the de facto government of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on the spot, with regard to the continuing problem of extrajudicial killings.

The earlier one is the verdict of the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT), Second Session on the Philippines, held in the world’s capital on international law, The Hague, The Netherlands, last 25 March. The second is the interim report of the UN Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings in the Philippines delivered to the UN Human Rights Council, on 27 March, in Geneva, Switzerland.

The PPT describes itself as “an international opinion tribunal, independent from any State authority (that)…examines cases regarding violations of human rights and rights of peoples.” Founded in June 1979, in Bologna, Italy by a broad spectrum of law experts, writers and other cultural and community leaders (including five Nobel Prize laureates) coming from 31 countries, the PPT is rooted in the historical experience of the Russell Tribunals on Vietnam (1966-67) and the dictatorships in Latin America (1974-76).

From its founding to the present, the PPT has held 32 sessions, one of the earliest being the first session on the Philippines in 1980 that “found the Marcos regime guilty of political suppression and abuse of power in violation of the rights of the Filipino people.” It also “condemned the political, economic and military complicity with the US and other foreign powers.”

The PPT is not conferred with any state or inter-state authority to enforce its judgments or verdicts against the accused. “The importance and strength of (its) decisions… rest on the moral weight of the causes and arguments to which they give credibility and their recognition in the UN Commission on Human Rights.”

The PPT was presented with three charges principally against the defendants Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the Philippine government as well as George Walker Bush and the US government: to wit, gross and systematic violations of the civil and political rights; of the economic, social and cultural rights; and of the right to national self-determination and liberation of the Filipino people.

Contrary to wild accusations, primarily by the Arroyo regime and its apologists, the PPT is no “kangaroo court”. The request on a second session on the Philippines submitted by organizations of human rights victims, especially Hustisya! (Victims of the Arroyo Regime United for Justice), and the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan or BAYAN, a well-known leftist alliance of national and democratic people’s organizations, was thoroughly studied by the PPT Secretariat and President; specifically, the matter of the competence of the PPT on the contents of the accusation and the representativeness of the plaintiffs were ascertained.

Once it was decided to hold the PPT second session of the Philippines, the two main accused parties – the Arroyo and Bush governments – were notified formally through their embassies in Rome and in The Hague and were invited to participate to exercise their right to defense.

The public hearings were conducted for three full days while the jurors’ closed-door deliberations were held from the evening of the third day to the morning of the fifth and last day when the session was concluded with the reading of the verdict.

The presentation of the testimonial and documentary evidence was conducted under rigorous and high legal standards such that the first part of the PPT verdict said: “The wealth and consistency of the oral and written documentation made available through witnesses and expert reports, has convinced the PPT that each and all three of the charges … are substantiated.”

Moreover, the PPT concluded that the extent and systematic nature of the violations of the rights of the Filipino people constituted “crimes against humanity, with all the consequences for the persons responsible for them.”

According to the 13-page verdict, “We need to see the worsening human rights crisis in the Philippines in the context of the United States’ strategies for global economic and military hegemony and the ensuing US-led so-called ‘war on terror’” which the Arroyo and Bush administration have “knowingly and willingly colluded with each other in implementing.”

The tribunal identified Oplan Bantay Laya (Operation Freedom Watch), the current counterinsurgency program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the latest expression of the state’s “all-out war” policy, to be the underlying cause of the extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, massacres and other gross violations of civil and political rights. Thus, the PPT said it “has found unequivocal evidences that the militaries have a central role in the greatest majority of the scenarios of human rights violations in the Philippines.”

It also said, “The US, through Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency, has been involved in conceptualization, planning, training of AFP personnel and execution of…[this] latest formulation of previous counterinsurgency plans.” According to the verdict, the Security Engagement Board Agreement of 2006 between the US and the Philippines created the Security Engagement Board—a joint committee of defense and military officials of the two countries tasked to “oversee the anti-terror campaign” in the Philippines.

The tribunal concluded, “The reported killings, torture and forced disappearances fall under responsibility of the Philippine government and are by no way justified in terms of necessary measures against terrorism.”

On the other hand, the interim report of the UN Rapporteur, Mr. Philip Alston, pointed to “two of the most important underlying causes of a great many of the killings.” The first is the government campaign of vilification or guilt by association accorded to groups in the left of the political spectrum who are labeled as “front organizations” of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA). Subsequently, a wider range of groups “including human rights advocates, labor union organizers, journalists, teachers’ unions, women’s groups, indigenous organizations, religious groups, student groups, agrarian reform advocates, and others are classified as ‘fronts’ and then as ‘enemies of the state’ that are accordingly considered to be legitimate targets.”

“The second cause is the extent to which aspects of the Government’s counter-insurgency strategy encourage or facilitate the extrajudicial killings of activists and other ‘enemies’ in certain circumstances.”

Mr. Alston states emphatically that his recommendations “will make little difference unless there is a fundamental change of heart on the part of the military or the emergence of civilian resolve to compel the military to change its ways. Then, and only then, will it be possible to make real progress in ending the killings.”

The truth is slowly but surely emerging that indeed the killings and other grievous human rights violations are part and parcel of state policy and that government officials up to the highest levels are responsible for their cover-up and the resulting climate of absolute impunity.###

March 17, 2007

Reign of terror

The vital flaw which undermines the utility of much of the (Philippine) judicial system is the problem of virtual impunity that prevails. This, in turn, is built upon the rampant problem of witness vulnerability. Thepresent message is that if you want to preserve your life expectancy, don't act as a witness in a criminal prosecution for killing… In a relatively poor society, in which there is heavy dependence on community and very limited real geographical mobility, witnesses are uniquely vulnerable when the forces accused of killings are all too often those, or are linked to those, who are charged with ensuring their security.
-- UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, Philip Alston

Siche Bustamante-Gandinao, a 56 year-old farmer, married with six children, daughter-in-law of slain Bayan Muna–Misamis Oriental provincial chairperson Dalmacio “Tatay Daki” Gandinao, herself a member of Bayan Muna and the Misamis Oriental Farmers Association, and a witness presented to UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings Philip Alston last February, was shot dead on 12 March, by an unidentified assailant as she walked home after harvesting crops with her husband and children. The place of the incident was only 50 meters away from an army detachment; the assailant reportedly fled in its direction.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson, Lt. Col. Bartolome Bacarro, was quick to blame the New People’s Army (NPA) as responsible for the assassination: he claimed that Mrs. Gandinao had been cooperating with the military and was thereby targeted by the NPA for liquidation. He did not elaborate nor offer any proof of this claim.

The AFP has indeed made a habit of blaming any and all extrajudicial killings of activists on the communist-led guerilla army. Not only is the AFP “in denial”, as Mr. Alston pointed out, of any military/police involvement in the alarming spate of killings, Mrs. Arroyo’s generals have a ready culprit and so their response is only a press release away.

How can the AFP spokesperson say that Mrs. Gandinao has been cooperating with the military when just weeks before she had lost her father-in-law to killers whom the family suspect to be members of military-directed death squads? She had testified, at great risk to her own life, in a closed-door hearing conducted by Mr. Alston during his visit to Cagayan de Oro. Mrs. Gandinao gave the names of the men who had been casing Tatay Daki’s house days before he was murdered. She also said her father-in-law had warned her that she was in the AFP “order of battle” together with her sister, Divina Bustamante-Tina, and that this meant the two of them were already on the military’s “hit list”.

The kind of people who would malign a dead woman without batting an eyelash is the same kind who can kill without batting an eyelash. The callous disregard for the honor and dignity of a victim of extrajudicial killings, brazenly discarding the facts and turning the truth on its head, says it all for the AFP. That the Commander-in-Chief allows the military to repeat this outrageously fictitious line ad nauseam despite the clear findings of her own investigative body, the Melo commission, says it all for the Arroyo administration.

The killing of yet another witness to the extrajudicial killing of activists underscores the extreme vulnerability of such courageous yet apparently foolhardy individuals. What immediately comes to mind is the case of Marcelino “Ka Marcing” Beltran, president of the Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Tarlac and a survivor-witness of the Hacienda Luisita Massacre of November 2004 who was gunned down in his own home.

As I wrote back then, when Ka Marcing testified before a fact finding mission three days before his cold-blooded murder, “(h)e was articulate, fearless, agitated, his words tumbling from his mouth as he narrated how he miraculously escaped the hail of bullets even as he helped carry the dying and the wounded to safety, away from the bloodthirsty police, military and private security forces who relentlessly pursued the fleeing strikers and rallyists with their guns, truncheons and boots.”

No honest-to-goodness investigation was ever conducted by the authorities. Ka Marcing’s family decided to move away quietly and not pursue justice for their father. To this day, the police have no suspects and no charges have been filed: the killers have gotten away again scot free.

According to Mr. Alston, “The Witness Protection Program is impressive on paper. In practice, however, it is deeply flawed and would seem only to be truly effective in a very limited number of cases. The result, as one expert suggested to me, is that 8 out of 10 strong cases, or 80% fail to move from the initial investigation to the actual prosecution stage.”

Thus the recent announcement by the Supreme Court that it will set up special courts to try cases of extrajudicial killings of activists and journalists, loudly applauded by Malacanang, appears to have little relevance to bringing an end to the reign of impunity in this country.

The military, the police, the justice department, the Melo Commission and Mrs. Arroyo herself all rue the alleged “lack of witnesses” as the main if not the only reason investigations into the killings do not prosper. They turn a blind eye to the well-founded distrust of government by the victims’ families who suspect the assassins to be men in uniform, the masterminds to be people in authority and the over-arching policy frame to be reflected in Oplan Bantay Laya, the government’s flawed counter-insurgency program.

They gloss over the proven danger for anyone who dare testify, especially against agents of the state, not to mention the inaccessibility, if not absence of, government resources to support witnesses and their families. They keep quiet about the fact that no human rights violator has been punished in this country despite the fall of the Marcos dictatorship and the supposed restoration of democratic processes and the rule of law.

Most of all, they do not acknowledge that the highest accolades and quick promotions rendered, together with the stubborn refusal to investigate, the likes of Gen. Jovito Palparan -- notorious for bringing about a reign of terror and a long list of extrajudicial killings and involuntary disappearances while dutifully implementing the government’s counter-insurgency program – is the true measure of the Arroyo regime’s unwillingness to stop the killings.

Mrs. Arroyo can end the killings today, if she wanted to. ###

*Published in Business World
16-17 March 2007

March 08, 2007

Human Security Act: License to kill

How are we to believe de facto president Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when she proclaims that the new anti-terrorism bill, euphemistically named the Human Security Act, will be used against supposed bombers and not protesters? On the contrary, such fascist legislation will certainly give further license to the Arroyo regime-sanctioned death squads responsible for the political killings that have triggered concern among international quarters including the European Union and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings.

The new law will certainly embolden the military and police forces -- from the overbearing generals to the trigger-happy soldiers and truncheon-brandishing cops -- to ride roughshod on ordinary folks’ civil, political and basic human rights. It will whet the appetites of the right-wingers concentrated in the Cabinet Oversight Committee on Internal Security (COCIS) headed by Mrs. Arroyo to quicken the tempo of her regime’s much publicized “all-out war against the Left.”

In a nutshell, this consists of: (1) funneling more and more government resources to the AFP and PNP and the Mrs. Arroyo’s unaudited “intelligence” funds; (2) sanctifying the “Palparan model” of civil-military operations which is essentially state terrorism at its terrifying worst; (3) providing official cover-up at the highest level for the horrendous practice of extra-judicial killings, abductions, massacres and torture not to mention wholesale displacement, arbitrary arrests, physical abuse and harassment of poor people in rural and urban communities; (4) practically scuttling peace negotiations as a means of addressing the long-running armed conflict between the government and the communist movement and its underlying socio-economic roots; and, not the least, (5) marching to the discredited baton of US President Bush’s administration in using the “terrorist” label to demonize and repress those who resist US-led wars of aggression, fight against state assaults on civil and political liberties and, in general, oppose the regime’s dangerously insane policies.

The all-out campaign to eliminate the progressive party lists Bayan Muna, Anakpawis and Gabriela from the political arena is a special project of the COCIS orchestrated by the National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales. An intense vilification campaign in the form of relentless red-baiting and an anti-communist witch hunt reminiscent of the 50s is being conducted by the loathsome troika of NSA Secretary Gonzales, AFP Chief Hermogenes Esperon and Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez with the implicit blessings of Mrs. Arroyo. For example, these not-so-honorable gentlemen try to get away with wild accusations that the three party lists are channeling their countryside development funds to the NPA without being able to produce an iota of evidence as proof.

While poisonous words can be parried by truthful ones, the unabashed militarization of rural and urban areas nationwide that the regime has pinpointed to be the bailiwicks of these uncompromisingly oppositionist partylists are certainly causing harm to life and limb. Recently, the obtrusive presence of military men in full combat gear prowling the slums of Metro Manila, ferreting out and threatening Bayan Muna et al supporters as well as telling residents not to vote for these party lists has raised alarm bells among civil libertarians and the general public.

The filing of trumped-up charges of rebellion and common crimes such as multiple murders against standard bearers Satur Ocampo, Liza Maza, Teddy Casino and Rafael Mariano and the concomitant disqualification petitions against the party lists themselves are meant to knock them out if not seriously incapacitate the front-running candidates from campaigning, and eventually, assuming office.

It goes without saying that the most brutal but officially denied component of this campaign is the unabated killings, abductions, surveillance and harassment of the leaders, organizers and even ordinary members and supporters of these party lists.

And yet what are these aforesaid party lists truly guilty of? They are being pilloried for standing on a political platform that calls for genuine land reform and national industrialization, for upholding and promoting fundamental human and democratic rights and institutionalizing people’s empowerment through vibrant grass-roots organizing, militant mass struggles against oppression and exploitation and using the ballot to elect genuine servant-leaders of the people. Of course, they sealed their doom by taking a leading role in pushing for the impeachment of Mrs. Arroyo and joining the call for her ouster through another massive demonstration of unarmed “people power”.

Are not the political objectives, aspirations and actuations of the progressive party lists strikingly similar to that espoused by the armed revolutionary movement? Of course they are! And why not, they are unashamedly self-proclaimed to be on the Left of the political spectrum.

Does this not then constitute prima facie evidence that they are mere “communist front organizations” as the loathsome troika Gonzales-Esperon-Gonzalez would have us believe? Not so. These organizations are politically legitimate and legally recognized. They operate openly, do not engage in armed struggle and are democratically organized with an expanding mass constituency that the Arroyo regime is trying hard to terrorize with the military’s guns and vicious psychological warfare. As a matter of fact, the countryside funds of Bayan Muna representatives are subject to the same accounting and audit requirements of other members of Congress and, even more so, the prying eyes of Messers. Gonzales et Gonzalez. Thus the latter’s much ballyhooed accusations about these funds being diverted to the NPA are just a lot of hogwash.

It must be pointed out that part of the so-called “peace offensive” cum counter-insurgency measure of the Aquino and Ramos governments was to entice and co-opt the revolutionaries under the umbrella of the National Democratic Front (NDF) to join electoral politics. Now that the legal Left has successfully entered Congress while not relinquishing the autonomous Parliament of the Streets and without denouncing the right of the people to take up arms against an oppressive government, Arroyo’s hit men cry foul, raise the communist bogey and resort to the most underhanded of tactics to halt the legal Left’s fledgling inroads into an arena still very much dominated by reactionary and discredited politicians like themselves.

While Mrs. Arroyo and her cabal of widely perceived liars, plunderers, blood-thirsty fascists and die-hard anti-communists insist that the deliberately mislabeled Human Security Act is geared to go against “terrorists” like the Abu Sayyaf/Jemah Islamiyah, we all know better.

The people’s democratic movement is in for fearsome and trying times not unlike that of the Marcos martial law period. But it will surely persevere, gain further strength and win wider support from the Filipino people and the peoples of the world as it struggles to overcome another fascist dictatorship in the making.#

*Published in Business World
9-10 March 2007