Manila chief inquest prosecutor Jovencio Senados and Mayor Pablo Matinong Jr. of Sto. Niño town, South Cotabato, are the latest names to be added to the roll call of victims of killings in the country, which have gone unabated even if many parts of the Philippines remain under community quarantine and hard at work battling the coronavirus pandemic.
Both were killed in broad daylight — Senados at 11 a.m. on July 7 while on his way to work in his car, and Matinong at 7:30 a.m. on July 10 while inspecting a road project in Barangay Poblacion in his town.
Matinong was included in President Duterte’s narcolist in 2016; a number of those on the list have been killed since then. Senados, on the other hand, was noted for ordering the release of people arrested by police for minor violations of community quarantine regulations, including 20 protesters from a Pride march near Malacañang last month.
It is bad enough that Senados was the 50th member of the legal profession — judges, lawyers, and prosecutors — killed since the Duterte administration came to power in 2016, according to the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers. But to be killed apparently while trying to ease somewhat the government’s draconian hand during a pandemic takes the impunity altogether to a new level.
These latest killings speak to the reign of violence that has come with the Duterte administration’s brutal war on drugs, whether committed by police or guns-for-hire that have found it easier to ply their deadly trade in an environment conducive to unaccountable brutality. With only one measly conviction in the drug war killings in over four years, the continuing murders belie the sincerity in the government’s pronouncements to prosecute and stop the killings.
It is thus not surprising why a recent Malacañang move to create a panel to reinvestigate 5,655 deaths from police drug war operations was greeted more with skepticism than with welcome relief. On June 30, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that the Philippine government has formed an inter-agency panel that will reinvestigate the 5,655 deaths from police operations, assist the victims’ families, and assess if charges should be filed against erring police.
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia of Human Rights Watch, could only describe the belated move as “nothing more than a ruse to shield the country from international scrutiny.’’
That is because, to Malacañang’s consternation, the UNHRC investigation is progressing after a majority of its members approved in July 2019 a resolution to look into the drug war and human rights situation, and asked UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet to prepare a comprehensive report. It was that report presented in the June 30 hearing that apparently prompted damage control efforts from Malacañang.
More troubling for the government is the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is expected to decide within the year whether to open a formal investigation on Mr. Duterte.
Guevarra was straightforward in saying that with the inter-agency panel, there should be no need for the ICC to proceed with the investigation. “The continued, unhampered functioning of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights underpins our strong position against calls for an independent investigative mechanism including the one made before the International Criminal Court from which we have withdrawn,” Guevarra said in his message to the UNHRC.
But as Robertson pointed out, the panel was “deeply flawed,” as it is composed of the very agencies implicated in the drug war killings. While several agencies are also in the panel, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior and Local Government, which supervises the Philippine National Police, will “make the final evaluation’’ on the report of the panel.
On top of these international investigations, a 104-page report by the Commission on Human Rights released late last week provided a scathing assessment of the Duterte administration’s human-rights record, including a grim tally of 134 human rights defenders (HRDs) killed since 2016. “Public vilification, including profanity-laden tirades by no less than the President, has ceased to shock the senses of the public. But for some HRDs, to be publicly named, shamed and accused by President Rodrigo Roa Duterte is already equivalent to a guilty sentence,” said the report.
Its damning conclusion: “The prevailing climate of impunity in the context of violence against HRDs is largely attributable to the pronouncements of the President.”
With the staggering toll in human lives and the continuing violence against individuals and targeted organizations, it’s clear that it would take more than the hollow gesture of creating a token review panel for the government to be able to extricate itself from the world’s withering scrutiny and call for accountability.