Congressional Delays Symbolize Failure to Tackle Impunity
Manila – The Philippine House of Representatives should fast-track its investigations of alleged human rights abuses by state security forces, Human Rights Watch said recently. Congress is only now acting on the 22 resolutions that legislators have filed with its Committee on Human Rights since 2013 that call for investigation of specific allegations of human rights violations by the military and police.
Congress is convening on August 13 and 14, 2015, an “initial omnibus legislative inquiry” into human rights abuses that is designed to jumpstart congressional attention to those resolutions. The inquiry, which will gather more information about the cases in each resolution by interviewing victims and witnesses, will take place on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao where many of the alleged human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, have occurred.
The inquiry will result in a report detailing its findings and recommendations that it will then submit to Congress. It can recommend the filing of cases before the courts or the Office of the Ombudsman, which is empowered to pursue separate investigations and prosecutions of human rights-related cases. Congress must initiate these proceedings before it adjourns in June 2016 or it will have to refile the resolutions and start all over again.
“Years of apathy by the Philippine Congress toward human rights violations by security forces just makes it easier for perpetrators of abuses to literally get away with murder,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The House of Representatives can and should send a powerful message against impunity by making this week’s inquiry in Mindanao an opportunity to jumpstart long-overdue congressional scrutiny of serious human rights abuses.”
The majority of the 22 human rights abuse-related resolutions filed before Congress by various legislators since 2013 call for investigation of specific allegations of human rights violations by the military and police. Three privilege speeches were also delivered by different representatives, all calling for congressional investigation of these cases.
The outstanding congressional resolutions on alleged human rights abuses by elements of the security forces relate to cases that include killings on:
- July 3, 2012, of Wilhemus Johannes Geertman, a Dutch missionary in Pampanga province;
- August 26, 2013, of anti-mining activists Anting Freay and his 16-year-old son Victor in Davao del Sur;
- December 6, 2013, of tribal leader Pedro Tinga in Compostela Valley province;
- March 15, 2014, of Romeo Capalla, a former political prisoner and fair-trade activist in Panay province; and
- March 26, 2014, of human rights defender William Bugatti in Ifugao province.
Separate congressional resolutions since 2013 have also called for the investigation into the torture of detainees at a police facility in Laguna, as well as the harassment of members of grassroots groups such as Pamalakaya, which represents small-scale fisherman known as “municipal fisherfolk.” Two other resolutions call for investigations into the enforced disappearance on August 21, 2013, of Bryan Epa, an organizer for Katribu, an indigenous peoples group, and Benjamin Villeno, a coordinator for the leftist political party Bayan Muna.
Legislators have also issued resolutions looking into alleged cases of children falsely accused by the military of being child soldiers. They also want to investigate the so-called Tagum Death Squad, which was allegedly financed and controlled by police and local government officials.
Calls for accountability by government officials have not brought an end to the extrajudicial killing of activists and journalists, torture, or enforced disappearances. Although the number of such cases has decreased since 2010, when President Benigno Aquino III took office, they still occur fairly frequently. President Aquino had made several commitments in the past to address these abuses, but his administration has to date produced few significant results.
A “superbody” that Aquino created in 2012 to resolve extrajudicial killings has not made significant progress, Human Rights Watch said. Torture by the police and other security forces remains routine and elements of the military continue to be implicated in serious abuses. Police have been linked to summary killings, particularly “death squad” operations carried out in complicity with local officials in Tagum City and other urban areas.
“Congress needs to demonstrate that it’s on the side of rule of law and the victims of human rights violations by supporting thorough and transparent investigations into such abuses,” Kine said. “Congress can show that it’s serious about tackling impunity by fast-tracking investigations into alleged human rights abuses and supporting the congressional inquiry in Davao City.”