The UN envoy on the political killings: ‘In a State of Denial’
By Rachel E. Khan
After ten days in the Philippines, Philip Alston, the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur for extrajudicial killings, found a way to describe the problem of summary executions in the country. He compared it to alcoholism.
Until an alcoholic admits he has a drinking problem, he is nowhere near a cure, Alston said. Referring specifically to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the UN representative said, “The AFP’s refusal to admit the military involvement in extrajudicial killings seems to me like an alcoholic in a state of denial. Until they admit to themselves that they have a problem, they are nowhere near a solution.”
In a meeting with civil society organizations, Alston explained, “The AFP remains in a state of almost total denial of its need to respond effectively and authentically to the significant number of killings which had been convincingly attributed to them. The President needs to persuade the military that its reputation and effectiveness will be considerably enhanced, rather than undermined, by acknowledging the facts and taking genuine steps to investigate (these).” As to the actual number of those killed, Alston said that it did not really matter which organization had the right count. “Whatever it is, the numbers are enough to be impressive and distressing,” he said.
On the day of his arrival, Feb. 11, Alston immediately met with civil society groups. In the meeting were representatives of the media sector, specifically the Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists (FFFJ) and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).
The FFFJ was founded in 2003 to support the survivors of slain journalists. Its member-organizations are the Center for Community Journalism and Development, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the Philippine Press Institute, the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas, and the California-based Philippine News.
In the days that followed, Alston also met with key government officials such as the heads of the AFP, the Philippine National Police, and the Department of Justice. He talked with representatives of non-government organizations (NGOs) who supplied him with documents regarding the killings.
But Alston did not rely on the reports of NGO representatives alone. He spent most of his time, especially in Baguio City and Davao City, listening to testimonies of witnesses in closed-door sessions.
In the case of slain journalists, the FFFJ and NUJP presented to Alston witnesses in the killings of Edgar Damalerio, Marlene Esperat, and the couple Maricel and George Vigo. He also spoke to Alberto Martinez, the North Cotabato broadcaster who was paralyzed as a result of an assassination attempt in 2005.
According to the CMFR database, 62 journalists and media practitioners have been killed in the line of duty since 1986, when the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown and the institutions of liberal democracy restored in the Philippines.
Alston kept his word to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo not to share the details of the findings of the Melo Commission with the media or civil society groups. But he had this to say: “The President showed good faith in responding to allegations by setting up an independent commission. But the political and other capital that should have followed is being slowly but surely drained away by the refusal to publish the report. The justifications given are unconvincing. The report was never intended to be preliminary or interim (italics supplied). The need to get ‘leftists’ to testify is no reason to withhold a report which, in some ways, at least vindicates their claims. And extending a commission whose composition has never succeeded in winning full cooperation seems unlikely to cure the problems still perceived by those groups. Immediate release of the report is the first essential step.”
Alston also said it was necessary for the government to restore public accountability. “The focus of Task Force USIG and Melo is insufficient. The enduring and much larger challenge is to restore the various accountability mechanisms that the Philippine Constitution and Congress have put in place over the years, too many of which have been systematically drained of their force in recent years. I will go into detail in my final report, but suffice it to note for present purposes that Executive Order (EO) 464, and its replacement Memorandum Circular 108, undermine significantly the capacity of Congress to hold (the) Executive to account in any meaningful way.”
On the other hand, he also admonished civil society organizations, saying that they should try to cooperate with the government. “I’ve never been so abused with documentation,” he told the representatives of the organizations, adding, “you should also furnish the government with these and see what they will do [about the cases].”
A mere ‘muchacho’
Malacañang’s immediate response to Alston’s initial recommendations was to release the Melo report as he had suggested.
Armed Forces chief Hermogenes Esperon Jr. and Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez however dismissed Alston’s findings. Gonzalez even described Alston as a “mere muchacho” (male servant).
It was the media, notably the Philippine Daily Inquirer, that tried to educate Gonzalez about Alston’s position and responsibility. As an independent expert, Alston works not for his native Australia but for the UN commission that appointed him, in this case, the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). He submits his report and recommendations to the UNCHR after each mission but is also tasked to address the UN General Assembly every other year to give his recommendations.
Alston has served in various capacities in the UN, including as chair of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights from 1991 to 1998, and as its rapporteur from 1987 to 1990. In 1989, he was appointed by the secretary-general, at the request of the General Assembly, to report on measures that would ensure the long-term effectiveness of the human rights treaty bodies. In that capacity, he presented reports to the General Assembly in 1989, the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, and the Commission on Human Rights in 1997. In 2002, he was appointed special adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Millennium Development Goals.
Alston is a professor of law at the New York University and faculty director of its Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. He was head of the Law Department at the European University Institute in Florence and directed a major project on the European Union and Human Rights at the request of the European Commission from 1996 to 1999.
Alston was accompanied to the Philippines by UN experts Ulrich Garms (who had previously investigated war crimes in Bosnia) and William Abresch (who had investigated human rights violations in Chechnya). n
Currently the chair of the journalism department at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, Rachel E. Khan also works at the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility as Freedom Fund for Filipino Journalists coordinator.