The Philippines: Impunity is a serious matter

On the occasion of the 62nd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which marked the first semester of the Aquino administration, President Benigno Aquino III declared his government’s commitment to human rights. He announced the formation of a human rights office in the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the crafting of a Human Rights Desk Operations Manual for the Philippine National Police, and the creation of a Department of Justice Task Force to review unresolved cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. The president also promised to end impunity. In his speech delivered on December 10, 2010, he said:

“Violators of human rights will be held accountable for their actions, and the state will protect, with unflagging commitment, the rights of all its citizens.

“Let this be a concrete example of how our administration is working in the broad light of day to build a country where the law protects us equally. The culture of silence, injustice and impunity that once reigned is now a thing of the past.”

However, three years later impunity still reigns. Human rights are still being violated with impunity; no human rights violator, especially the masterminds who issued the command to violate human rights, has been punished; the few military officials who were charged in court – due to the persistence not of the government but of relatives of the victims – the most infamous of which is former General Jovito Palparan, remain at large and another one, former Col. Red Kapunan was granted bail; even those who are guilty of the most gruesome crimes such as the Maguindanao massacre have been playing around with the court.

Impunity is not a numbers game because one killing is one killing too many, and enforced disappearance has no place in a civilized world. It is about punishing those who commit these abhorrent crimes against humanity so as to prevent the commission of the same in the future.

The main problem is not so much that Aquino failed to fulfill his promises, the problem is his administration has been doing the exact opposite. The Aquino administration even denies that impunity still pervades. Just recently, Palace spokesperson Herminio Coloma received flak after dismissing the killings of journalists in the country as “not so serious.” Last year, President Aquino himself labeled reports of human rights violations under his administration as “leftist propaganda.” The administration’s denials that human rights violations and killings of journalists are still being committed send a message to perpetrators that the Aquino government has been turning a blind eye to their crimes.

Worse, the Aquino government is taking the same path as its predecessors, which engendered the killings of political activists and journalists.

It has been implementing its own militaristic counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan, which, like its predecessor Oplan Bantay Laya, labels all those criticizing the anti-people policies of the government and advocating for patriotic and pro-people policies and programs as “enemies of the state.” It does not distinguish between those who are part of the legal progressive movement for change and those who have taken up arms against the government to radically change the rotten political, economic, and social system. Those who are labeled as leftists or “enemies of the state” become fair game for extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

The Aquino administration has also been playing the game of dirty politics. Like its predecessor, it has been using pork barrel funds to buy the votes and loyalties of lawmakers and local officials. Political dynasties have become more entrenched under its watch. The ruling party even included members of the Ampatuan clan in its slate during the last elections because it has not qualms about dealing with powerful clans at the local level to be able to strengthen the hold of the ruling party in national politics. Thus, journalists who are viewed as being critical of dominant, political clans are being disposed of at the local level.

Three years into the current administration, it could no longer be said that the Aquino administration is merely in a state of denial or is merely being inept at putting an end to impunity. Its repeated denials, despite evidence to the contrary, and its own actions show that it has no intention of ending impunity. It is now up to the people to keep on exerting political pressure on the government to end impunity or to at least make it think twice before killing another political activist or condoning the killing of another journalist.