A Year of Pluses, Minuses on Rights: Decrease in Killings, But Impunity for Abusers

The Philippine government adopted landmark human rights legislation in 2012, but failed to make significant progress in holding the security forces accountable for serious abuses, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013.

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

In the Philippines, Human Rights Watch spotlighted the disturbing trend of increased threats and attacks on environmental and anti-mining activists by alleged members of the security forces.

“The overall human rights situation in the Philippines improved in 2012 with fewer extrajudicial killings and the passage of historic laws promoting rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But the government has failed to address impunity for the most serious abuses. On prosecuting rights abusers, it needs to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”

In late 2012 the Philippine Congress passed, and President Benigno S. Aquino III signed, a landmark law that makes it mandatory for the government to provide reproductive health services. They also enacted a law that criminalizes enforced disappearances, the first such law in Asia, and one that could end the scourge of such abductions that have destroyed countless lives. On January 18, 2013, Aquino signed a law instituting policies for the protection and welfare of domestic workers. Other bills promoting human rights are pending in Congress, with at least one other, a bill compensating victims of abuses during the martial law period in the 1970s and 1980s, awaiting Aquino’s signature.

However, Congress also passed the Cybercrime Prevention Act in September, which, if enforced, could severely undermine freedom of expression and the Philippines’ status as a regional leader in internet freedom. The law allows for stiff criminal sentences for broadly defined online defamation. Aquino signed the law into force, but the Philippine Supreme Court suspended its enforcement in October, after a public outcry led by free-expression groups and bloggers.

“The Philippine Congress has shown the capacity to craft laws that promote and protect human rights,” Adams said. “But it also passed a poorly thought out cybercrime law that could prove disastrous for internet freedom. The challenge now is for the government to implement these good laws in an effective manner while working to immediately overturn the cybercrime law.”

In the past year, the Aquino administration said it would “actively engage international bodies in seeking ways to improve the criminal justice system,” and promised to expedite human rights investigations and improve the justice system.

No progress on accountability for extrajudicial killings, disappearances 
Little progress was made in successfully prosecuting cases of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, Human Rights Watch said. Since 2001, hundreds of leftist activists, journalists, rights defenders, and clergy have been killed by alleged members of the security forces. Local human rights organizations reported approximately 114 cases of extrajudicial killings since Aquino came to office, though the number dropped sharply with just 13 reported in 2012.

Environmental activists appeared to bear the brunt of threats and attacks during the year, Human Rights Watch said.

On July 2, Aquino signed an executive order that aims to institutionalize reforms in the Philippine mining sector, but it is silent on the issue of rights abuses arising from mining investments, and on the deployment of paramilitaries at the mines. Aquino defended an earlier directive to allow the use of paramilitary forces to augment the military in its campaign against insurgents, and to secure the operations of mining companies. Members of these forces have been implicated in serious human rights abuses.

The communist New People’s Army and Islamist armed groups in the south continued to commit serious human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.

Despite strong evidence that military personnel have been involved, investigations have stalled.  Not a single case of extrajudicial killing by the security forces resulted in a conviction in 2012, and no such conviction has been reported since Aquino became president in 2010, Human Rights Watch said.

In 2012, Aquino did not keep his election promise to revoke Executive Order 546, which local officials cite to justify the provision of arms to their personal security forces. These “private armies” are responsible for much of the violence that has become common in the Philippines during elections. Although the government said it has disbanded 28 of these “private armies,” nearly 100 still exist, according to the Interior Department.

“If 2012 was the year for new laws promoting human rights, then 2013 should be the year for effective action,” Adams said.

To read Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2013 chapter on the Philippines, please visit:

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