The past year in the Philippines has served as a reminder that the election of a president promising reform does not guarantee reform. President Aquino condemned human rights violations in the Philippines and pledged to bring justice to the victims of the ‘Maguindanao massacre’ – since he has come to office Human Rights Watch has documented seven extrajudicial killings and three enforced disappearances in which there is strong evidence of military involvement, and there has been little progress in the prosecuting of the perpetrators of the 58 murders in Mindanao or the many other cases of death and disappearance that wait to be resolved.
These examples serve to highlight problems in the Philippine political and legal systems which if not tackled will result in more deaths and disappearances – if following previous trends, of those who simply campaign for better lives – and the impunity of those who are responsible for them.
It is clear that there remains a need for far greater civilian control of a more professionalised military, which itself must be better educated on human rights and held to account by the courts. Breaking the dependency of national government on provincial trapos is another necessity – the manner in which such regional elites are given unremitting support by central government due to their ability to win elections or fight insurgencies highlights systemic flaws in the political system. Again, a well-funded military under firm public control would do away with the need for private militias and the well-understood risks of allowing provincial rulers to amass private armies. Here, the issue of tackling insurgencies comes to the fore – it is clear that force alone will not defeat the government’s enemies, and it is well understood that in the case of both communist and Islamic separatist conflicts, poverty in Mindanao – the country’s breadbasket – is a key driver. The government attitude of no development without peace first thus presents a conundrum which must be broached.
Underscoring all these issues is the need for deep and wide reforms to the criminal justice system – an issue CHRP has chosen to highlight this year. Believing that there is no punishment for crime only serves to incentivise would-be criminals. Here, Maguindanao must be seen as a test case setting an example to would be human rights violators. As Detlev Mehlis – head of the now ended EU-Philippines Justice Support Programme – tells CHRP in an interview in this newsletter, the criminal justice system is in “desperate need” of reform, from the police, through to prosecutors and criminal procedures. And in this, civil society has a role to play. Ultimately, though, it is government which must take the lead. As Mehlis tells CHRP, “while civil society plays a most important role in creating awareness and observing the government, functioning courts, an effective and determined prosecution service and an effective police respected by the people can only be implemented by the elected political institutions”. And here Mehlis says there must be a “much bigger effort and more determination” than he saw when in the Philippines.
We remain hopeful that President’s Aquino will act with the determination that he promised. And where he does not, CHRP will be there to remind him of what needs to be done.