Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Speech delivered in Hong Kong last July 21 during the Meeting of Parliamentarians of the Asian Alliance against Torture and ill-treatment organized by the Asian Human Rights Commission.

Good afternoon dear friends and fellow human rights advocates. Mabuhay!

On May 19, 2009 Filipino-American Melissa Roxas was abducted by suspected members of the military in a remote village in the Central Luzon region of the Philippines, located north of Manila. Roxas was accused of being a communist rebel. After several days, Roxas was eventually released. She was able to recount her ordeal, including the torture she suffered in the hands of her captors. This is an excerpt of what Roxas mentioned in her affidavit:

“…throughout my abduction, I was always blindfolded and handcuffed even in my sleep except for those few times when I was made to take a bath.”

“…they held my feet and my hands down and doubled up plastic bags were pulled down on my head and face and closed on my neck and I started to suffocate and I could not breath anymore.”

“…the interrogation continued non-stop with one interrogator replaced by another after every hour and I was not given lunch although, there was a brief respite from the questions during lunch but it continued after lunch.”

The case of Melissa Roxas received national and international attention because she is a citizen of the United States. Fortunately for us, Roxas refused to remain silent about what she endured, and she was able to summon enough courage to share her story with the rest of the world. Last April, Roxas testified in Geneva to highlight the state of human rights in the Philippines.

Roxas gave face to victims of torture and other human rights violations during the administration of Gloria Arroyo who was president from 2001 to 2010. By the time Arroyo stepped down from power last June 2010, the documented cases of torture in the country have already reached 1,099. Roxas was one of the 1,099.

The surge in human rights abuses in the past decade was one of the reasons for the strong lobby, renewed interest, and political commitment which forced the government to enact an anti-torture law. We succeeded in our legislative advocacy when President Arroyo signed Republic Act 9745 or An Act Penalizing Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment on November 10, 2009. I’m proud to say before this body that I’m one of the legislators who actively supported and voted in favor of this law.

What are the pertinent provisions of the law?

Section 4 identifies the specific acts of physical and mental/psychological torture

Section 6 states that a threat of war or state of war ‘shall not and can never be invoked as a justification for torture.’

Section 8 states that ‘Any confession, admission or statement obtained as a result of torture shall be inadmissible in evidence in any proceedings.’

Section 11 identifies the institutions (CHR, PAO, Barangay, NGOs) which are empowered to provide legal assistance to torture victims

Section 12 mandates that torture victims shall be provided with medical treatment and assistance

Section 13 clarifies that military superiors and public officers can be charged in the courts if they directly and indirectly participated, supported, or tolerated torture

Section 21 orders educational institutions to integrate human rights topics in the curriculum

Unfortunately, the passage of the anti-torture law in 2009 didn’t prevent the continued use of torture by armed personnel of the state. On February 6, 2010, just a few months after the enactment of the anti-torture law, the army arrested 43 health workers suspected of being members of the communist New People’s Army in a suburban town east of Manila. After almost a year of being placed in detention, the health workers were set free after the case against them was dismissed by the Court. The health workers complained that they were subjected to physical and mental torture by their captors.

During one of their court appearances, I was able to listen to their testimonies exposing the daily rituals of torture inflicted against them. A doctor testified that “Whenever they needed to urinate, a guard had to pull their shorts and underpants down and females had their genitals washed by their guards as they were blindfolded. Electrocution and other forms of torture were also reported.”

Human rights under Aquino

The backlash against human rights atrocities committed by state forces contributed to the unpopularity of the Arroyo government. The administration party lost badly in the 2010 elections. The overwhelming victory of the opposition raised expectations that the new leadership will review the security policies and programs of the government which directly and indirectly encouraged the military and police to commit human rights abuses against suspected supporters and sympathizers of communist rebels.

After two years, can we say that there has been qualitative change in governance in terms of protecting human rights? Sadly, I have to answer in the negative. Human rights violations have continued even under the supposedly reformist leadership of President Benigno Aquino III. Impunity, a word which recently became known to many people because of the government failure to punish human rights violators, persists. A few days ago, the chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) complained that not a single human rights violator has been sent to jail during the term of President Aquino.

The Karapatan NGO reported 67 cases of torture in the past two years. Meanwhile, the CHR received more than 360 cases of human rights abuses involving the military and police. Based on available data, human rights violations have intensified in the poorest regions of the country. Incidentally, the local communist insurgency and the Muslim separatist movement are strongest in these areas.

National security doctrine

Mandated to crush the rebellion at all cost, state forces failed to distinguish combatants from non-combatants in conducting their operations. Their aggressiveness can be attributed to the unrealistic deadline imposed by the national government to quell the armed movements in the country.

National security policymakers have advanced a doctrine that the number of NPA rebels will dwindle if members of the legal left are prevented from doing their political and propaganda work. Because of this theory, they made no distinction between communists who bear arms and those who chose to work in the legal arena.

This new doctrine has resulted in the brutal assassination, massacre, torture and kidnapping of non-combatant leftists and even innocent individuals. Hundreds of peasant communities suspected of being influenced by communists are subjected to food blockades and hamletting. Extrajudicial killings became so acute and widespread that the UN was forced to send a special rapporteur in 2007 to investigate the alleged human rights violations perpetrated by state forces.

Longest insurgency

The Philippines is facing the longest communist insurgency in the world. Since 1969, the Moaist-influenced NPA has been waging a protracted people’s war and the group is still considered the country’s top security threat. Why has it survived this long?

The NPA is composed mainly of poor farmers who probably got attracted by the radical land reform program offered by the Communist Party or CPP, which involves, at the minimum, the reduction of land rent and abolition of usury, and at the maximum, the confiscation of landlord property and its equitable distribution to the peasants.

The issue of inequitable land distribution in the provinces has fueled countless peasant uprisings across the country’s seven thousand islands. Such uprisings have also forced past and present administrations to enact land reform laws many of which have been rejected by farmer groups, and especially the CPP, for being excessively in favor of landlord interest through inserted loopholes and tricks for the landlords to prevent or evade land distribution. Aquino’s family, for instance, owns the biggest family-owned farming estate in Southeast Asia and it still remains largely intact despite the passage of a land reform law in 1987 because the Aquinos refused to distribute their vast landholdings to small farmers.

The CPP credits its longevity to the direct and indirect support given by hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of farmers who sympathize with the communist cause, especially with its land reform program.

Based on official documents on its website, the CPP is not yet on the threshold of clinching victory in the country. It claims to be operating at the strategic defensive phase of the protracted people’s war. Its armed forces, though much smaller than the military, are strategically scattered throughout the archipelago. In short, the armed rebellion led by the CPP is neither winning nor losing at the moment.

Despite its failure to capture state power, the CPP wields a little, and sometimes significant, influence on Philippine politics. During the Marcos dictatorship from 1972 to 1986, the CPP played a key role in sustaining the pro-democracy movement. The CPP was the most consistent and formidable political force that opposed martial law during the Marcos years. It gained prestige and strength as it persevered in undermining the autocratic Marcos rule.

After the downfall of Marcos, the CPP did not renounce its armed struggle. Peace talks were initiated between the government and the communist rebels, but they soon broke down after disagreements on the framework of the negotiations. An amnesty program was offered but it was ineffective in encouraging the rebels to surrender their arms.

A turning point in the history of the CPP was the rectification movement it launched during the early 1990s. The CPP affirmed its adherence to the Maoist line of encircling the cities from the countryside but there were a number of cadres who disagreed with this theory and proposed an urban insurrection as a model for advancing the Philippine revolution. There were also members of the party who wanted to embrace a peaceful transition to socialism. Furthermore, the CPP apologized for the brutal killing of some its own members wrongly accused of being double agents of the government. Those who disagreed with the basic principles of the movement broke away from the CPP.

According to the military, the rectification movement diminished the strength of the CPP and permanently affected the winning chances of the revolution. The CPP reached the peak of its military and political strength in 1986 but the internal disputes which led to a split in the 1990s have fundamentally weakened its influence in Philippine politics.

For the government, the CPP is the major stumbling block preventing the Philippines from achieving sustained economic growth like its more prosperous Asian neighbours. The government insists that poverty will not be eradicated and foreign investors will shy away from the country as long as communist rebels are lurking in the provinces. It accuses the CPP of extortion through the taxes it collects from local businessmen and politicians.

Peace Talks

Since the Marcos era, the principal approach of the government in dealing with the CPP was to use violent and repressive tools against the armed and even the unarmed members of the left.

The secondary approach is to enter into peace negotiations in order to persuade the rebels to declare an indefinite ceasefire.

Arroyo renewed the peace talks with the rebels in 2001 but her attitude changed after the 9/11 terrorist attack in the United States. She started accusing CPP leaders of being terrorists which practically nixed previous attempts to end the insurgency through peace negotiations. Arroyo turned the counterinsurgency drive as part of the US-led “War on Terror” which led again to the escalation of hostilities between rebels and soldiers.

New counterinsurgency program

When Aquino became president in 2010, he unveiled his so-called innovative approach in resolving the country’s long running insurgency problem. Patterned after military models in the United States, the new program dubbed as Oplan Bayanihan provides a new framework and strategy in ending the insurgency threat. Officials of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) claim that it is a counterinsurgency program that will no longer cost the lives of thousands of civilians, a program that focuses on ‘winning the peace’ instead of simply defeating the enemy.

The program banks on two strategies: the whole of nation approach, which entails a “multi-faceted and multi-pronged approach” in solving the insurgency problem and the people-centered security or human security approach that “puts people’s welfare at the center of operations.” Such concepts were largely based on the US Interagency COIN Initiative, which uses the “whole of government, whole of society” concept in carrying out its counterinsurgency operations. The said US document also distinguishes between an “enemy-centric approach” and a “people-centered approach.”

In other words, Oplan Bayanihan aims to end the rebellion by redirecting the energies of the army from engaging the rebels in the battlefield to participation in the delivery of basic social services in the communities. The primary concern now of the army is to win back the trust of the people, especially the poor, and restore public confidence in government institutions. Soldiers are required to undergo human rights seminars and keep a human rights handbook while performing their duties.

While Oplan Bayanihan admits that a purely military solution is insufficient to put an end to the insurgency, peace advocates and left-leaning groups are not convinced that it addresses the roots of armed conflict in the country. Basic issues at the root of the armed conflict such as land reform, national sovereignty, social justice, national industrialization and genuine democracy, according to leftist groups, remain unaddressed under the Aquino administration.

Human rights groups have also expressed doubts whether the paradigm shift would address the problem of rampant human rights violations committed by the Philippine military. They cite, for instance, the continuing practice of army officials of branding legal progressive organizations as communist fronts.

These human rights abuses may be the handiwork of isolated elements inside the army who want to sabotage the ongoing peace talks between the government and the communists. But some analysts fear that it could be an indication of the real strategy of the state: one hand promotes peace while the other still enforces terror.

Lessons from Philippine experience

The Philippine experience with regard to human rights protection underscores the following: 1) Human rights legislation must be accompanied by sustained, coordinated, and multisectoral efforts to guarantee effective implementation, documentation, and monitoring of the law; 2) Awareness, information, education initiatives must begin within the bureaucracy; 3) Legislation is inadequate, in fact it would be rendered meaningless, if not supported by substantial judicial, social and political reforms.

Before I left Manila to attend this forum, the Commission on Human Rights informed this representation about their proposed interventions to further promote human rights, and in particular, prevent abuses like torture:

1. The Commission, as the lead agency of the Oversight Committee stipulated in the anti-torture law, has already drafted its rules of procedure

2. The Commission is also pushing for the approval by other involved stakeholders, particularly the Executive branch, to approve the MOA for the National Monitoring Mechanism, a platform through which civil society, government institutions and the CHR can, in a real-time manner discuss urgent cases of human rights violations and even launch quick response actions to prevent arbitrary acts by state security forces as well as by identifying risks that give rise to grave excesses.

3. In the light of the Philippine adhesion to the optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degarading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) last 17 April 2012, the Commission, in partnership with civil society groups will be filing a bill which will establish a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) in the Philippines. The NPM is the OPCAT’s domestic arm and main engine of this system of regular visits to places of deprivation of liberty (not just traditional places of detention but also confines such as juvenile centers, drug rehabilitation facilities, and migrant holding centers) for the prevention of torture and other forms of ill-treatment. The CHRP and civil society have been working on drafting this bill since 2010.

Additionally, we are pushing for an efficient witness protection system, the reform of the criminal justice system, the prosecution of human rights violators, and the continuing human rights education among our people.

But for people’s organizations and human rights groups working in the grassroots, the long term solution to end torture and human rights atrocities cannot be realized through simple bureaucratic and administrative reforms. The laws are actually in place already, legal remedies are available; and even politicians and state forces are publicly and openly embracing human rights concepts and their deep respect for rule of law, freedom, and democracy. Yet abuses continue. Why? Because it’s impossible to mainstream human rights without adopting structural reforms in governance and the inequitable political-economic system that supports it. Therefore, as we continue to enhance the legal framework in our human rights advocacy, people’s organizations are also actively demanding key political measures which they think would address the roots of conflict in our country.

For example, they are asking the government to resume the peace talks with rebels. The talks are stalled because of the refusal of the government to release more than 300 political prisoners. The peace talks would allow the continuation of discussion of economic and social issues that drive many people to take up arms.

The government is also urged to scrap its counterinsurgency plan which has caused tremendous suffering in poor villages and victimized thousands of innocent civilians. Instead of militarization and deployment of soldiers in communities, the government should concentrate on the delivery of basic social services in the countryside.

Torture is a taboo which is secretly endorsed and practiced by coercive elements of the state because they think it is essential to weaken their enemies. Unfortunately, in the context of a Third World Society like the Philippines, the enemies are the people who resist government programs and development projects. This makes it more imperative for the government to rethink its policies that breed tension, hate, division and suffering.

Furthermore, we can’t emphasize enough the importance of expanding the human rights constituency so that it can be strong enough to push for the sincere and resolute implementation of human rights laws like the anti-torture law.

Lesson from the Philippines: Our work doesn’t end with mere enactment of laws. The bigger challenge is to implement these laws. And the more difficult question is if political leaders have the political will to adhere to the highest standards of democracy and rule of law. The best approach is to encourage the rise of a citizen movement which would articulate the issues we in Parliament often try to ignore or refuse to tackle.

*Thank you JM Ragaza for the input on the anti-insurgency program of the government. Thank you Karapatan and Commission on Human Rights for the additional information.

Leave a Reply