Only a few hours separated President Aquino’s rousing, well-received speech at the 77th anniversary of the Armed Forces of the Philippines last Friday and his signing into law of the landmark Anti-Enforced Disappearance Act of 2012 later the same day. But the two events seemed worlds apart—not least because the President sought to keep them separate.
In Camp Aguinaldo, Mr. Aquino rightly gave high praise to the soldiers who have given their lives in the country’s defense. He also offered a definition of the symbolic import of the founding of the AFP that is worth quoting in full: “Binuo din ito bilang tanda ng kahandaan nating magsarili’t manindigan para sa ating kasarinlan, habang kinikilala ang kapangyarihan ng taumbayan bilang bukal ng lakas at siyang dapat na paglingkuran.”
The military, he said, was “also formed as a sign of our readiness to stand on our own and defend our sovereignty, while recognizing that the power of the people is the source of our strength and the object of our service.” We find this instructive, the way he threads the long military tradition of self-sacrifice with the ideal of people power (giving in the process a historical gloss to the constitutional precept of the military as “the protector of the people”).
But he did not say a word about the human rights abuses that even the military itself would admit has stained its record of service. It was this very background, of a military so politicized by the martial law years that it remains prone to abusive conduct, that made the so-called desaparecidos law both urgent and necessary. The first in all of Asia, the new law defines enforced disappearance as a new and distinct crime, and is based on the candid assumption that many of the incidents involving it were perpetrated by members of the various armed services.
To a President who sees it as part of his duty to educate the media on the principles and practices of ethical journalism, the opportunity to educate the military on another dimension of its history—a dimension which swept up his family not only once but several times—must have suggested itself. He could have devoted a paragraph to the new law he was planning to sign after the AFP anniversary rites, made a point of the need to cleanse the ranks of the military of the scourge of impunity, and impressed upon his audience the responsibility, now that new arms and equipment are in the pipeline, to restore the people’s untarnished faith in the military. That he didn’t do any of these, not even a short, swift reminder of the role of some officers and soldiers in the enforced disappearances of some 2,000 victims over the last 30 or so years, suggests to us that the new law will face even more challenges in implementation than we expected.
It doesn’t help that some confusion about some of the specific provisions of the new law remains. It may not exactly be accurate to say, for example, that all orders of battle have been declared illegal. The phrasing of Section 5 of the new law limits the scope of the declaration: “‘An order of battle’ or any order of similar nature, official or otherwise, from a superior officer or a public authority causing the commission of enforced or involuntary disappearance is unlawful and cannot be invoked as a justifying or exempting circumstance.”
One can read that to mean that any order of battle, or orbat, a strategic or tactical document that, among other tasks, lists so-called enemies of the state, may be deemed legal as long as it does not include instructions that will cause “the commission of enforced or voluntary disappearance.” We realize this is a gray area with black-or-white (that is, life-or-death) consequences, so perhaps the confusion is inherent in the concept.
But whatever the reading, the importance of this provision is that the old military practice of misusing the order of battle to target noncombatants, such as journalists and NGO activists, will no longer be condoned. Surely this is worth celebrating, together with other breakthrough provisions, even in the context of the military’s own founding anniversary? By keeping the two events separate last Friday, we all lost a teaching moment.