Last Updated: Monday, 22 December 2014, 21:54 GMT

Philippines: Obama Should Press Aquino to Tackle Abuses

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 8 June 2012
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Philippines: Obama Should Press Aquino to Tackle Abuses, 8 June 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fd1f21c2.html [accessed 23 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

US President Barack Obama should press Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to bring to justice security forces implicated in serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. Obama will be the host for a visit by the Philippine president in Washington, DC, beginning on June 8, 2012.

Philippines security forces since 2001 have been implicated in hundreds of cases of extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances, Human Rights Watch said. Victims have included leftist activists, journalists, alleged insurgents, environmentalists, and clergy. Killings have dropped significantly since President Aquino took office in 2010, but new cases have been reported and few of those responsible have been held accountable.

"Obama needs to speak frankly with Aquino about addressing Philippine security forces' abusive record," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Accountability for abuses is not only a matter of justice for victims, but vital for the Philippines' future as a rights-respecting democracy."

US military expansion in Asia should not deter Obama from raising human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said.

Since 2002, US military personnel have conducted regular joint military operations with the Philippines armed forces in the southern Philippines. US troops deployed in southern Zamboanga City have assisted in operations on the islands of Basilan and Sulu against the militant Islamist Abu Sayyaf group. Recent tensions in the South China Sea between the Philippines and China over the resource-rich island territories have underscored Manila's close military relationship with the United States.

Particularly during the previous administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the US forcefully raised concerns about lack of accountability in the Philippines. During the Universal Periodic Review of the Philippines, the assessment of its human rights situation before the United Nations Human Rights Council, in Geneva on May 29, the US urged the Philippine government to end impunity for extrajudicial killings and to take control over paramilitary forces under military command, which have a long history of abuses.

Since 2008, the US Congress has withheld $2 to $3 million per year in assistance to the Philippines. The funds can be released only if the secretary of state certifies that the Philippine government "is taking effective steps to prosecute those responsible for extra-judicial executions [EJEs], sustain the decline in the number of EJEs, and strengthen government institutions working to eliminate EJEs."

The Philippines has not met the conditions for restoring the withheld assistance. Since 2008, the State Department has not certified the compliance required for the release of these funds, and it did not agree to a request to certify compliance made by the Philippines foreign minister during a visit in May.

"Rather than arguing, making promises, and offering excuses, President Aquino should focus on ending and prosecuting extrajudicial executions," Sifton said. "He should let actions do the talking."

A key case concerns retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, who is implicated in the abduction and enforced disappearance of two activists in 2006. Although he was indicted by Philippines prosecutors in late 2011, Palparan remains at large, allegedly helped by former colleagues in the armed forces. Numerous other human rights cases have languished.

In the last decade, only seven cases of extrajudicial killings, involving 11 defendants, have been successfully prosecuted – none since Aquino took power and none involving active duty military personnel.

In a July 2011 report, "No Justice Just Adds to the Pain," Human Rights Watch documented 10 cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances during the current Aquino administration for which there is strong evidence of military involvement. Police investigations remain inadequate, as they were in the previous administration, with investigators frequently not visiting crime scenes or collecting only the most obvious evidence. Evidence of military involvement is routinely not pursued, investigations cease after one suspect is identified, and arrest warrants are frequently not executed. Witnesses are not adequately protected. Not one of these cases has been successfully prosecuted, Human Rights Watch found.

Human Rights Watch has previously reported on human rights abuses by the communist New People's Army andIslamist armed groups. But those forces' crimes are not a justification for abuses by security forces, Human Rights Watch said.

In addition to accountability issues, the Obama administration should raise concerns with the Philippines about the use of paramilitary forces under the supervision of the armed forces or local government officials, Human Rights Watch said. Paramilitary members have in past years been implicated in unlawful killings of civil society activists and alleged insurgents. When he ran for president in 2010, Aquino promised to rescind an executive order allowing for the creation of "private armies," but he has backtracked and has spoken about allowing paramilitary forces to provide security for private corporations, including mining companies.

"Ending abuses entails real changes," said Sifton. "Accountability in the long term means ensuring that security forces are professional, subject to regular command, and disciplined under the rule of law."  

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