Guardians at risk

Spare a thought today for the plight of human rights defenders. A new preliminary report out from the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, based on a fact-finding mission conducted in the Philippines last month, puts disturbing trends about continuing human rights violations in the country in the necessary perspective.

“There is compelling evidence that human rights defenders, in particular those advocating for land and environmental rights, are under serious threat, are constantly vilified, intimidated and ‘terrorized.’ A climate of pervasive and systematic impunity is at the heart of this alarming situation. Urgent protection measures and unequivocal steps to address the lack of accountability for attacks on human rights defenders are now required,” was the initial conclusion of the members of the mission.

The Observatory is a project of the World Organization against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), a global movement to which the Philippine Association of Human Rights Advocates belongs.

The focus on what the international community of rights advocates call human rights defenders is not new, but at the risk of over-generalization, most HR stories in the mainstream Philippine media dwell on victimization or violation: either the story is on victims of human rights abuses or on the alleged role of armed groups, primarily the Armed Forces of the Philippines and occasionally the communist New People’s Army, in perpetrating violations. The perilous situation of human rights defenders is often simply assumed.

At around the time the Observatory fact-finding mission was in the Philippines, for instance, another international group, New York-based Human Rights Watch, denounced the Aquino administration’s laid-back approach to the Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre.

Its Asia director, Brad Adams, was quoted as saying: “Three years since the horrors of the Maguindanao Massacre, the trial crawls along, half of the suspects remain at large, and the victims’ families still face threats…. Yet the larger problem is that the Aquino administration has done next to nothing to disband the rest of the country’s private armies.”

This is necessary work, calling attention to the single most significant human rights issue bedeviling the country. The specter of so-called private armies, which haunts the Maguindanao countryside, explains the culture of impunity which leads to human rights abuses in the first place.

The Aquino administration may be tempted to “contextualize” the increasingly harsh statements from Human Rights Watch. The group’s 2012 country report on the Philippines, for example, benchmarks the number of extrajudicial killings to 2001, to the start of the previous administration. To the members of the Aquino administration who opposed the Arroyo leadership’s deadly counterinsurgency campaign, this lumping together of the Arroyo and Aquino record must be particularly galling.

They cannot say the same of the Observatory mission, because even in its preliminary findings it takes account of the sudden decrease in extrajudicial killings since the Aquino administration took over. And yet the reality it sketches is stark.

“The mission found a general climate of human rights violations and impunity in the country in relation to land rights and land reforms that underlie threats to human rights defenders. Farmers and, even, barangay (local government) officials implementing the government’s agrarian reform program of land redistribution for landless farmers face serious threats to their life and liberty. Some have been shot at, others have been criminalized and many intimidated by threat of violence or abusive libel charges.”

The Aquino administration is well-placed to institute needed reforms, beginning with demilitarization. A gun enthusiast himself, President Aquino is not seen as a naive peacenik by the country’s soldiers. Interior Secretary Mar Roxas has reformist credentials that resonate among military men. Together, they can undo the executive-sanctioned use of paramilitary organizations and complete the work of demilitarization—that is, remove law enforcement functions from the military services.

The puzzle is: What are they waiting for?

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Tags: Benigno Aquino III , Government , human rights , Philippines , The Observatory report

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