US urged to press for justice, keep aid conditional on holding rights abusers accountable
(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, April 30, 2012 - The United States should press senior Philippine officials visiting Washington this week to fulfill the Aquino government's commitment to bring abusive military personnel to justice, Human Rights Watch said today. The US government should also resist attempts to remove a congressional hold on a portion of foreign aid to the Philippines until significant progress has been made in that regard, Human Rights Watch said.
On April 30 and May 1, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are scheduled to meet with their Philippine counterparts in Washington for a "2+2 dialogue" of joint meetings with the foreign and defense ministers to discuss defense and strategic security issues.
"The Philippine government's pronouncements on improving human rights have been mostly talk, and not much action," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Progress will be measured by results, in particular the prosecution of soldiers and officers implicated in abuses."
The US government has not taken advantage of its strong relations with the Philippine government to raise human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said. Clinton visited Manila in November 2011. On April 16, the Philippines and the US began their largest Balikatan ("shoulder to shoulder") joint military exercises in several areas across the Philippines, which both sides declared a success. But US officials, including the US ambassador, failed to take advantage of Balikatan's opening ceremonies to speak of human rights concerns.
"The US missed a key opportunity to engage publicly with the Philippine military about the need to end impunity for serious human rights abuses," Pearson said. "The US shouldn't let such opportunities slide and 2+2 is an important chance to rectify that oversight."
Since 2008, the US government has withheld $2 million to $3 million per year in assistance to the Philippines. This assistance is supposed to be released only if the State Department 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 conditions are based in part on recommendations to the Philippines by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. The Philippines has not met the conditions, Human Rights Watch said, noting that the State Department since 2008 has never made such a certification.
Philippine military claims that it has been bringing perpetrators to justice are not supported by the available evidence, Human Rights Watch said. In the past decade, state security forces in the Philippines have been implicated in hundreds of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, particularly of leftist activists and sympathizers, journalists and clergy. Although the number of cases has gone down since President Benigno Aquino III took office in 2010, there has not been significant progress in prosecutions.
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 titled "No Justice Just Adds to the Pain," Human Rights Watch documented 10 cases of extrajudicial killings and 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 the identification of one suspect, and arrest warrants are frequently left unexecuted. Witnesses are not adequately protected. Not one of these cases has been successfully prosecuted.
In December, the Philippine Justice Department did issue an arrest warrant for retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, charged with the kidnapping and illegal detention of two students in 2006. However, Palparan has been in hiding and able to evade arrest, allegedly with the help of former colleagues in the armed forces.
Serious abuses by the communist New People's Army and Islamist armed groups are no justification for abuses by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Human Rights Watch said. The US government should make clear that a disciplined and professional military is crucial for ensuring the security of the civilian population.
US officials should also raise concerns about abuses by paramilitary forces under the supervision of the armed forces, Human Rights Watch said. Paramilitary members have been implicated in the killings of civil society activists and in harassing communities deemed to be supporting New People's Army rebels. When he ran for president, Aquino promised to rescind an executive order allowing for the creation of "private armies," but he has backtracked since, and also spoken positively about allowing paramilitary forces to provide security for private corporations, including mining companies.
"Clinton and Panetta should press for a commitment from their Philippine counterparts for full military cooperation in the investigation of abuses and disciplinary measures against those who fail to do so," Pearson said. "Too many Filipinos have endured abuses for the US to keep looking the other way."