The Philippines: Group hits AFP over human rights violations during Zamboanga conflict

MANILA, Philippines – Human rights abuses allegedly committed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) during the recent Zamboanga city conflict have reinforced the image of the military as a violator of human rights, according to an international human rights advocacy group.

Human rights research and advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) told in an exclusive interview that the military, which should be “an exemplar of human rights promotion,” mistreated detainees and put civilians and hostage at greater risk.

HRW Philippines Researcher Carlos Conde said that he found out about the human rights violations through interviews with people that were taken hostage by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and also some of the detained MNLF members.

Five detained MNLF members had said that plastic bags were placed over their head by police or military authorities to suffocate them and force them to admit they were part of the rebel group.

Some detainees were beaten and there was also a case where the detainee had alcohol poured into his nose while in another, the detainee was blindfolded and his head dunked into a toilet bowl, HRW said.

Minors arrested by authorities were handcuffed to each other and locked up for more than a week with adults, “which is a violation of local laws on children” Conde said. They were also kept in detention for that long without any charges being filed against them, which is illegal.

The military, during its operations, had also continued firing at the members of the rebel group even when they were using hostages as human shields, according to the hostages that HRW interviewed.

“In the case of this conflict, what the MNLF did was they used hostages as human shield,” which Conde said was a very serious violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the worst violation of the conflict.

“Their lives were at risk, but the military during the operations, according to the hostages, kept firing at them even though they know they were hostages and may have wounded or killed some of the hostages,” Conde said.

The actions of the military had placed the risk of the civilian at a higher level, which was also a violation of IHL, he said.

Human rights violator image

Conde said that the military already has an image of being a violator of human rights after being implicated in past incidents “of extrajudicial killings, tortures, and disappearances that victimized activists.”

The military has been accused of abducting activist Jonas Burgos in 2007. The military denied the allegation and the Department of Justice had dismissed the case against the accused generals for lack of probable cause.

Retired Army general Jovito Palparan, now a fugitive facing charges of kidnapping and serious illegal detention, is also accused of human rights violations for using high-handed tactics against insurgents during his career.

Conde said that the recent conflict in Zamboanga was a missed opportunity for the military to finally adhere to human rights laws.

“It’s just so sad that in this instance, and there are instances of violation of human rights, the military just lost an opportunity to really make itself an exemplar of human rights promotion and respect for human rights,” he said.

“It just reinforces the image of the military as this non-respecting of human rights entity … the military has not yet recovered from all these allegations of extrajudicial killings, tortures, disappearances,” Conde said. “It’s still trying to grapple with that, it’s still trying to find ways to be accountable for all those human rights violations.”

When the Zamboanga conflict arose, it was clear that what the MNLF was doing was wrong and that the military can come out as being the good guys, Conde said.

“Instead of the military being on a moral high ground and being examples of good conduct as far as human rights are concerned, [they ended up] violating the rights of civilians and detainees,” he said.

No justification

Even though the MNLF was the first to violate human rights by using hostages as human shields, Conde said that it does not justify the abuses by the military.

“A violation by one side cannot and will never justify the violation of the other side,” he said.

“The military and police, they’re supposed to know better, they have human rights desks, they have the structure, they have the facilities, they have the people to make sure that the human rights of hostages, civilians, and the detainees are respected,” Conde said.

The government forces are putting themselves at risk of possible backlash or exploitation from extremist groups because of their maltreatment of hostages and detainees, he added.

Government investigation

HRW recommended that government agencies such as the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) or the DOJ should look into the reports of human rights violations committed by the military.

“Any agency, DOJ, CHR, they can, on their own, start an investigation into these human rights abuses, and we welcome that, that should be the way to do it,” Conde said. “[They including] the human rights desk of the military and the police, should now step in and try to see who among their ranks committed human rights violations.”

He also said that the MNLF members responsible for human rights violations should also be brought to justice but in accordance with human rights laws. “If you do that, do not violate their rights because then you lose the moral authority.”

Conde said that the military should take human rights and IHL seriously and step back and reassess its adherence to human rights in the recently concluded Zamboanga city conflict.

“Surely these people have suffered enough not just in Zamboanga but elsewhere [and] for the military to start violating their rights just because they’re suspected of being rebels, you’re just worsening the problem,” he said.