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Extrajudicial killings have a corrosive effect on civil society and political discourse in the Philippines, says UN independent expert at the end of visit

22 February 2007

Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, issued the following press release today. Mr. Alston is an independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The United Nations independent expert on extrajudicial killings, Mr. Philip Alston, concluded his 10-day visit to the Philippines on 21 February. At the press conference marking the conclusion of the visit, Mr. Alston noted that he had enjoyed the Government’s “unqualified cooperation” and that he had met with “virtually all of the relevant senior officials of Government”, including the President of the Republic. He added that “the Government’s invitation to visit reflects a clear recognition of the gravity of the problem, a willingness to permit outside scrutiny, and a very welcome preparedness to engage” on the issue of extrajudicial killings.

The UN independent expert remarked that in meetings with government officials, civil society groups, victims and witnesses of killings as well as other actors he had “gathered a huge amount of data and certainly much more than has been made available to any one of the major national inquiries” created by the President in 2006 to look into the killings of left wing activists and journalists.

Mr. Alston refused to provide a figure for the number of killings, a question that is the object of heated debate within the Philippines: “The numbers game is especially unproductive”, he remarked, “but I am certain that the number is high enough to be distressing. Even more importantly, numbers are not what count. The impact of even a limited number of killings of the type alleged is corrosive in many ways. It intimidates vast numbers of civil society actors, it sends a message of vulnerability to all but the most well connected, and it severely undermines the political discourse which is central to a resolution of the problems confronting this country.”

Mr. Alston found that a “significant number of killings [had] been convincingly attributed” to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). He dismissed the “theory … relentlessly pushed by the AFP and many of [his] Government interlocutors” that the reason for the recent rise lies in purges committed among its ranks by the CPP/NPA, the communist insurgency. “The evidence offered by the military in support of this theory is especially unconvincing.” The UN independent expert concluded that “the AFP remains in a state of almost total denial … of its need to respond effectively and authentically” to the allegations that military personnel are involved in unlawful killings. “The President needs to persuade the military that its reputation and effectiveness will be considerably enhanced, rather than undermined, by acknowledging the facts and taking genuine steps to investigate.” Mr. Alston added that he was fully aware that his visit took place “within the context of a counter-insurgency operation … on a range of fronts”, and stated that he did “not in any way underestimate the resulting challenges facing the Government and the AFP”.

With regard to the so-called Melo Commission, the independent commission created to investigate the killings, the UN independent expert remarked that the “President showed good faith in responding to allegations by setting up an independent commission. But the political and other capital that should have followed is being slowly but surely drained away by the refusal to publish the report.” Mr. Alston also noted that too many of “the various accountability mechanisms that the Philippines Constitution and Congress have put in place … have been systematically drained of their force in recent years”. To restore them is the enduring and large challenge faced by the Philippines.

As to the judicial system, the UN expert stated that it was undermined by “the virtual impunity” prevailing. This, in turn, “is built upon the rampant problem of witness vulnerability. The present message is that if you want to preserve your life expectancy, don’t act as a witness in a criminal prosecution for killing. Witnesses are systematically intimidated and harassed.” The Witness Protection Program in place is impressive – but only on paper, the expert found. “In practice, however, it is deeply flawed and would seem only to be truly effective in a very limited number of cases.”

Turning to the larger political context, Mr. Alston noted that there had been, at the national level, “a definitive abandonment of President Ramos’ strategy of reconciliation” with the leftist groups. While the legislative framework providing an opening for such groups to enter the democratic political system had not been repealed, “the executive branch, openly and enthusiastically aided by the military, has worked resolutely to circumvent the spirit of these legislative decisions by trying to impede the work of the [leftist parties represented in Congress] and to put in question their right to operate freely.” While non-violent in conception, there are cases in which this policy has, “certainly at the local level, spilled over into decisions to extrajudicially execute those who cannot be reached by legal process.”

Closely linked to the challenge for the Government and the AFP to accept the need to provide legitimate political space for leftist groups are the problematic aspects of the current counter-insurgency strategy, which the UN independent expert intends to explore in detail in his final report. He noted already in yesterday’s statement, however, that the “increase in extrajudicial executions in recent years is attributable, at least in part, to a shift in counterinsurgency strategy that occurred in some areas”. The attempt to vilify left-leaning organizations and to intimidate their leaders had in some instances “escalate[d] into extrajudicial execution”.

In concluding his remarks, which were broadcast live on television in the Philippines, the UN independent expert recalled that the “Philippines remain[ed] an example to all of us in terms of the peaceful ending of martial law by the People’s Revolution, and the adoption of a Constitution reflecting a powerful commitment to ensure respect for human rights.” He added that the “various measures ordered by the President in response to the Melo report constitute important first steps, but there is a huge amount that remains to be done.”

Mr. Alston will present a short preliminary report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 27 March 2007, while his full report with specific recommendations to address the situation will be made public in the course of the following months.

For use of the information media; not an official record