Philippines: ‘huge amount’ needs to be done to curb extrajudicial killings – UN expert

22 February 2007 – With a significant number of extrajudicial killings “convincingly attributed” to its armed forces, a culture of virtual impunity and “the rampant problem of witness vulnerability,” the Philippines’ Government faces the “enduring and large challenge” of restoring accountability, an independent United Nations human rights expert warned today.

“There is a huge amount that remains to be done,” UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston said in a statement at the end of a 10-day visit to the South-East Asian country, during which he said he enjoyed the Government’s “unqualified cooperation.”

He noted that he had met with virtually all relevant senior officials, including President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. “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, he added.

Mr. Alston, who also met with civil society groups, victims and witnesses of killings, declined to join in the country’s heated debate over how many people had been killed. “The numbers game is especially unproductive but I am certain that the number is high enough to be distressing,” he said.

“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.”

He dismissed the army’s claim that the recent rise in killings lies in internal purges by the communist insurgency as “especially unconvincing,” saying it “remains in a state of almost total denial … of its need to respond effectively and authentically” to 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, stating that he did “not in any way underestimate the challenges of waging counter-insurgency operations on a range of fronts.”

Mr. Alston stressed that the independent commission created by the president to investigate the killings was losing its “political capital” due to the refusal to publish its report while the judicial system was undermined by “the virtual impunity” prevailing and the risks faced by witnesses.

“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,” he said, noting that the Witness Protection Program is impressive on paper but deeply flawed in practice.

Turning to the larger political context, Mr. Alston noted that the strategy of reconciliation with the leftist groups had been abandoned and the increase in extrajudicial executions in recent years was attributable at least in part to a shift in counterinsurgency strategy. The attempt to vilify left-leaning organizations and to intimidate their leaders had in some instances escalated into extrajudicial execution, he said.

“The Philippines remain an example to all of us in terms of the peaceful ending of martial law by the People’s Revolution [in 1986] and the adoption of a Constitution reflecting a powerful commitment to ensure respect for human rights,” he concluded in remarks that were broadcast live on Philippines television. The various measures ordered by the President in response to the independent commission report “constitute important first steps, but there is a huge amount that remains to be done,” he declared.

Mr. Alston, who serves in an unpaid, independent capacity, will present a short preliminary report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 27 March 2007, with the full report with specific recommendations being made public in the following months.

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