‘Desaparecidos’ twice over
Since it was established by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1980, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has received over 57,000 cases attributed to government forces from 108 countries.
Of the 786 “desaparecidos” reported in the Philippines, 131 have been found alive, including 19 in detention, and 30 found dead.
That leaves 625 cases from 1975 to 2012 outstanding in the records of the Working Group as of 2018.
The Working Group’s definition of enforced disappearance includes three elements: “deprivation of liberty against the will of the person; involvement of government officials, at least by acquiescence; and refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.”
The term “enforced or involuntary disappearance” gives a rather technical, less horrifying description to the plain and simple abduction, kidnapping or arrest, often accompanied by violence or the threat of violence during and/or after the fact, that was endured by these victims and their families.
The case of two UP students, Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, almost 13 years ago, illustrates this.
They were taken by soldiers from a house in Bulacan in June 2006 and then tortured and sexually abused, according to court records in the trial of former major general Jovito Palparan Jr. The ex-general was convicted of kidnapping and illegally detaining the two women and was sentenced to up to 40 years in prison, along with two subordinates.
Luisa Dominado, who had already suffered a total of seven years in detention during the Marcos dictatorship, was waylaid by gunmen in April 2007 in Oton, Iloilo province. She and her companion, Nilo Arado, have not been heard from since.
About two weeks later, farmer-activist Jonas Burgos, a son of the late press freedom icon Jose Burgos Jr., was abducted from a mall in Quezon City by armed men later identified as soldiers. He remains missing.
The five desaparecidos are among the 625 remaining cases in the Working Group’s list. But now, the Duterte administration wants to “delist” such cases from the records of the Working Group, despite the fact that the victims’ fates remain unknown to this day.
A delegation led by Undersecretary Severo Catura of the Presidential Human Rights Committee, met with the Working Group last week in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo to “clarify” the cases, with the aim of removing them from the United Nations’ records. The 625 cases, argued Catura, have been “festering for so long,” and they happened during past administrations, not under Mr. Duterte, which, he said, has no record of enforced disappearances—a claim disputed by the human rights group Karapatan and other observers.
The military has tried to put the blame for involuntary disappearances on communist rebels, saying many of the cases happened in 1983-1986 during an internal purge that the Communist Party of the Philippines itself had acknowledged. However, former UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston reported in 2008 that the “purge theory” of the military “can only be viewed as a cynical attempt to displace responsibility.”
While the Commission on Human Rights welcomed the government’s rare engagement with an international human rights body, Commissioner Karen Dumpit said the 625 cannot be delisted so quickly. Each of the the victims’ families has to be consulted to agree on a resolution of the case of their missing loved ones. And “even if they delist a certain case, it does not mean that the enforced disappearance did not happen. The delisting is just a process, it does not erase the violation that occurred.”
An outraged Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, whose brother Hermon Lagman was abducted shortly before Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, said the government was “sweeping under the rug the ultimate truth about the victims’ fate and ensures their violators’ impunity.” The “sinister move” would be a “double atrocity” for the victims, he added.
Indeed, this move appears to be not only another brazen attempt to whitewash history and diminish the State’s responsibility for the country’s troubled human rights record; it also makes the victims desaparecidos twice over—first snuffed out from the face of the earth, and now about to be erased from the only list that enshrines their memory.
Such willful forgetfulness is a folly, reminded the UN Working Group: “Truth and justice for enforced disappearances are a precondition for lasting peace, while a lack of action to address them fosters a culture of impunity, which—in turn—may encourage further human rights violations in the future.”
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.