The Philippine government’s failure to investigate and prosecute extrajudicial killings fuels further military abuses, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government should ensure that officials vigorously investigate serious human rights violations or face disciplinary action, Human Rights Watch said.
The 98-page report, “‘No Justice Just Adds to the Pain’: Killings, Disappearances, and Impunity in the Philippines,” details strong evidence of military involvement in seven killings and three enforced disappearances of leftist activists since President Benigno Aquino III took office on June 30, 2010.
“Activists are being gunned down in the street, while implicated soldiers walk free,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Philippines can only bring an end to these horrific abuses if it is clear that anyone who orders or commits them will be jailed and their military careers will be over.”
The report is based on more than 80 interviews across 11 provinces with victims of abuses, their family members, witnesses, and police and military officials, including a former soldier who said military commanders ordered him to kill leftist activists and intimidate witnesses.
Human Rights Watch was unable to investigate several other suspected extrajudicial killings reported recently by local media due to time constraints and security concerns.
The Philippines faces multiple insurgencies from the communist New People’s Army (NPA) and other armed groups that have been responsible for many serious abuses. In addressing these insurgencies, the government should respect its legal obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said.
The military appears to have targeted several of these victims as suspected members of the NPA because of their involvement with leftist organizations, work on land reform, or opposition to the military’s presence in their communities. Military units operating in conflict-affected areas often consider all leftist organizations to be fronts for the rebel group and anyone who opposes the military presence to be NPA members.
“My husband was lying with open [gunshot] wounds on his chest and neck,” said Mercy Dejos, describing how she had found the body of her husband, a community human rights officer, and that of her son. “His fingernails were removed.” Her son appeared to have been shot in the back, she said.
Several of the victims were killed or abducted in front of witnesses, either when armed men entered the victim’s property and shot the person in cold blood, or shot the victim from a motorbike. Some attackers wore civilian clothes and covered their faces, while others wore military uniforms and made no attempt to hide their identities. In several cases there is evidence that soldiers worked with members of paramilitary forces – primarily the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGUs) – or paid military “assets,” including “rebel returnees,” former members of the rebel group.
A former soldier told Human Rights Watch that military commanders had ordered him to kill leftist activists and to hide or burn the bodies. He said the military had trained him and other soldiers to make targeted killings look like the work of the rebel group’s Special Partisan Unit (SPARU) by using .45 caliber pistols and wearing balaclavas thought to be favored by the rebels.
“The brazen nature of some of these abuses – in broad daylight and in front of witnesses – shows how members of the military can kill and ‘disappear’ people with little regard for the consequences,” Pearson said. “Tagging someone as a leftist activist is like sounding the alarm that they are on a military hit list.”
The government has failed to effectively investigate and prosecute the killings and enforced disappearances perpetrated during the last decade, Human Rights Watch said. Neither has it held accountable those responsible for the most recent abuses.
Only seven extrajudicial killing cases have been successfully prosecuted in the past decade, resulting in the conviction of 12 defendants, none since Aquino took office. There has not been a single conviction of anyone who was an active member of the military at the time of the killing. No senior military officers have been convicted either for direct involvement in these violations or as a matter of command responsibility.
Police investigations have stalled – especially when evidence leads to the military. Arrest warrants against those allegedly responsible have not been executed and internal military investigations are nearly nonexistent. The Philippine Justice Department’s inadequate protection program for witnesses, who have been subject to harassment and intimidation, has further hindered efforts to bring those responsible to justice.
Extrajudicial killings have long been a problem in the Philippines. Hundreds of members of left-wing political parties, political activists, critical journalists, and outspoken clergy have been killed or forcibly disappeared in the Philippines during the past decade.
In 2006 and 2007, when the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and several other major donors publicly raised concerns over the politically motivated killings under then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the number of killings dropped drastically. Under President Aquino, though, it is international pressure that has dropped, while the killings continue, Human Rights Watch said.
The US, the EU, Japan, Australia, and other governments should press the Philippine government to investigate these killings thoroughly, prosecute those responsible, require rigorous accountability in the military, and articulate clearly the consequences if these steps are not taken, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch called on Aquino to fulfill his campaign pledge to end serious violations of human rights in the Philippines by directing the police and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to vigorously pursue crimes allegedly committed by the military or themselves be subject to disciplinary measures. The military should conduct transparent internal investigations and discipline officers and soldiers responsible for extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, including under principles of command responsibility.
“President Aquino should work toward leaving behind a professional, accountable military as his government’s legacy,” Pearson said. “The US, EU, and other donors should be asking the Philippine government hard questions about why killings and disappearances continue one year into the Aquino administration.”