By Leila De Lima, Philippine Daily Inquirer,

23 July 2009

MANILA, Philippines—Every administration will insist that protection of human rights is a priority. This article does not seek to contradict the claim that steps have been taken to protect human rights. The Arroyo administration has indeed undertaken initiatives aimed at promoting human rights.

However, one cannot deny that human rights violations continue to happen. In fact, we are dealing with the same human rights issues that have plagued the country for decades. It is therefore imperative that we determine whether the administration’s responses have addressed these concerns.

This article looks at a number of key issues and themes.

First of all, one way to gauge the true commitment of President Macapagal-Arroyo to the promotion and protection of human rights is whether she will certify the charter of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) as urgent. This would help write finis to the impression of the CHR as a “toothless tiger.”

Another way to gauge the commitment of a country to human rights is to see which treaties it has ratified. It is one thing for Ms Arroyo to make pleasing statements, but it is a different matter for her to actually ratify a treaty and commit to fulfill certain obligations.

In 2007, the Philippine government ratified the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This aims to abolish the death penalty.

Another laudable development was the move by Congress a year before to pass Republic Act No. 9346 prohibiting the imposition of the death penalty. These developments are laudable.

Ms Arroyo, however, has recently made statements expressing an intention to revive the death penalty. We remind her of our binding legal obligations under the protocol. We cannot renege on this duty.

In 2003, the government ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. This contains specific duties on the part of governments to combat discrimination. It allows individuals whose rights have been violated, to go directly to the United Nations for action, allowing for stronger oversight.

In 2008, the Philippine government ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This treaty contains duties to ensure and promote the full realization of the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs). Its ratification is therefore appreciated.

Still to be ratified

The Philippines has not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICAED), and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Rome Statute).

This situation is very problematic. The OPCAT is important because it establishes a system of regular visits by independent international and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty. This would prevent torture.

The ICAED is significant because we are plagued by enforced disappearances. We continue to look for the disappeared, notably, Jonas Burgos, the two University of the Philippines students and James Balao. The inability of the government thus far to ratify the treaty devoted to this very issue is a travesty.

Finally, the Rome Statute is key because it would allow the International Criminal Court to prosecute crimes and atrocities of the gravest nature carried out in the Philippines and break the culture of impunity.

A number of important bills related to human rights have yet to be passed. These include proposed measures on torture, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killing. There are also bills on command responsibility as well as on strengthening the witness protection program.

Killings, disappearances, torture

The UN Special Rapporteur has noted the extrajudicial executions of members of civil society, indigenous organizations and media practitioners.

Based on the CHR database, the number of extrajudicial killings has escalated during the current administration. The number increased from 36 victims in 2001 to 144 victims in 2008.

The commission has also documented 239 cases of enforced disappearances, abduction and kidnapping from 2001 up to the middle of this year.

Statistics on extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearances may differ depending on who you ask, but regardless of this disparity, the fact remains that extrajudicial killings have been occurring.

Culture of impunity

What makes this worse is that a majority of the victims of this violence have not attained justice. A culture of impunity continues to be pervasive.

Statistics are likewise difficult to procure on vigilante-style killings because it is difficult to classify these cases with reasonable certainty. Distinguishing between state-sponsored killings and simple criminality is challenging.

The sheer number of reported deaths in the cities of Davao and Cebu, and now in Metro Manila, points to a significant problem.

There are currently no government statistics on torture but its prevalence is irrefutable. The recorded accounts of survivors, such as the Manalo brothers and Fil-Am activist Melissa Roxas, all but put a human face on the horrors of torture.

Lack of criminal convictions

The UN Committee on Human Rights has noted the lack of appropriate measures to investigate crimes allegedly committed by government security forces, in particular those crimes committed against members of civil society, human rights defenders, journalists and leaders of indigenous peoples, as well as the lack of measures taken to prosecute and punish perpetrators.

The current capacity of law enforcement officers to meaningfully carry out forensic investigations, and witness documentation and protection is significantly limited. The passage of time and the efforts of various sectors of government and civil society aimed at addressing this weakness have brought some progress, but this capacity is still very far from what is needed.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression noted the lack of security surrounding media practitioners in the Philippines. They noted charges of rebellion and libel as well as raids on media establishments.

On internal displacement

In areas of armed conflict and counterinsurgency operations, large displacements of civilian populations are a common occurrence.

We continue to witness a repeated exodus of civilians marching down dirt roads with their belongings, livestock and children in tow.

Improvements in transportation and passable roads are needed so that evacuation can be done in a manner that expedites removal of civilians from the front lines and saves lives.

Public declarations from the Department of National Defense on how the Armed Forces of the Philippines should crush the Abu Sayyaf foreshadow further tension and conflict.

Protection of children

Laws for the protection of children, such as the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act, look good on paper. But visits by the CHR tell a different story. At one point, 40 children were found to have been detained, for more than eight hours, in violation of the law.

We also found that detention facilities are congested and poorly ventilated. They lack clean toilets, clean water, medicine and beds. Children sleep on the floor. Many fall ill.

It has also been found that children are at times kept in the same facilities as adults. This is unacceptable since adults may subject them to harassment, torture or rape.

In a position to do good

On July 27, the President will be giving her last State of the Nation Address. When she leaves office, she will have served as President for more than nine years. Having been in power longer than usual, she should have been in a position to do more good.

Her ascension to power held the promise that our situation could only get better. However, human rights violations have escalated since she took office.

The current administration has several months left to turn things around. Whether it will do so is an open question.

(Leila de Lima is the chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights)