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Human Rights Council

Eighty percent for the Presiden

That State of the Nation Address was SO long. Whoever wrote it must be told that messages should be understood. You write a speech for more than thirty minutes and you’re bound to send your audience to sleep. In fact, beyond difficulties in staying awake, one felt literally drained by the time the President concluded his remark. And yes, I’m sure the President himself was exhausted after reading that opus.

Content-wise, President Aquino truly deserves a high mark of at least 80%. Even his staunchest critics must acknowledge that this is a President who has regained the trust of investors in this country. Gross domestic product has grown by a better-than-expected 6.4 percent for the first quarter. The peso is one of the strongest currencies in the region and the stock market is among the best performing in the world. The conditional cash transfer program. albeit controversial, has almost certainly made the difference between dying of poverty and subsistence for at least 4 million of its beneficiaries. Our schoolchildren will soon have a textbook each, and the daunted classroom and school chair shortage will be history by next year. What a difference good governance can do! While corruption still persists, one cannot deny that the problem is being addressed when highest official of the land leads by example.

So why, despite these, am I giving the President a grade of only 80 percent? Why not a 90 or even 100?

To begin with, I have naturally high expectations of President Aquino. My conviction has always been that anyone can do better than former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The truth is that we hit absolute rock bottom under Arroyo that the only way to go is up. That’s the law of physics.

I think a grade of 80 percent applies because there are areas of governance that the President completely ignored in his address and in his performance. Foremost of these is in the field of human rights and our failed criminal justice system.

What Mr. Aquino and his advisers probably do not know is that a working justice system and the protection and promotion of human rights are also accepted indicators of good governance and economic development. Contrary to the claims of many tiger economies, there is no antipathy between economic development and the promotion of human rights. In fact, the discharge of state responsibilities anent these rights is viewed as investment in human capital. This explains why many of the very developed economies of Northern America, Europe and Latin America are also bastions of democratic principles and human rights.

Furthermore, Aquino owed it the nation to address these issues in his Sona. Only last June, the Philippines was the subject of the Universal Peer Review in the United Nations Human Rights Council. There, one country after another berated the Philippines for its failure to punish the perpetrators of extralegal killings, enforced disappearances and torture. You would think that because of the tenacity of these criticisms, the President would choose the Sona to give assurance that his administration acknowledges the problem and that he will address it. But no, not a word was said about human rights. This has prompted at least two senior diplomats to remark that apparently, the PNoy administration is oblivious to their concerns expressed in the UPR.

What’s even sadder is that as a victim of human rights violations himself, the President has every reason to give priority to the promotion and protection of fundamental rights. He still rages in anger recalling how his mother and his sisters were subjected to degrading and humiliating treatment whenever they visited Ninoy in his detention. And of course, as a very young man, he himself became a victim of extralegal killing when his father was martyred in 1983.

What to do?

Well, since I’ve had first hand experience with the President when we successfully lobbied that the Philippines become a member of the International Criminal Court, I have not given up on him. My experience is that because of the many issues he has to deal with, one has to be patient and yet clear on why emphasis should be accorded this field. Already, Max De Mesa of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates and Katarungan, an umbrella organization of HR advocates focused on putting an end to extralegal killings an enforced disappearances, have agreed to plot a master plan on how Aquino’s experience as a victim could be the trigger to his presidency’s potential legacy as a champion of both economic development and human rights. This much we should do since I have repeatedly said that we may be the next victims of impunity.



I accompanied the wife and two children of missing lawyer Joe Franck Zuniga to see Justice Secretary Leila De Lima last week. The purpose of the meeting was to solicit the secretary’s assistance in determining the whereabouts of the missing lawyer, the fourth person to have disappeared this year. De Lima did not disappoint. In the said meeting, she announced that she was creating an NBI Task Force to look into the case.

According to the lawyer’s wife, Charito, Zuniga called her on June 20, 2012 to say that he had a meeting at Oceanworld Subic. He has not been heard from nor seen since. His car, a Honda Civic, was recovered the following day in a remote part of Zambales. According to sketchy police reports, the vehicle was driven to the spot where it was found by a man who later boarded a second vehicle. Unfortunately, the witness who reported this failed to get a glimpse of the face of the driver.

Thus far, the family and authorities are facing a blank wall. Charito and the children related how Zuniga recently received what they believe to be a death threat. Apparently, intelligence authorities from Subic furnished the lawyer with a flyer bearing his picture taken in a prayer rally in the vicinity of Central Methodist Church along Taft and Kalaw, Manila. The leaflet bore the cellular phone numbers of the missing lawyer, his home address and the amount of $10,000.00, which they interpreted as the price tag for the life of the lawyer.

The family could think of no one in particular who would benefit from the disappearance of the lawyer. It is of public knowledge though that Protestants have been known to be very vocal in the promotion of social justice, which is why many military operatives have branded some church members from both the United Church of Christ of the Philippines and the Methodists as “communists”.

A second theory has to do with an on-going strife between the break-away Methodist church headed by Zuniga, AIM Philippines, or the Philippine Methodist Church from its mother church, the United Methodist Church -which until today is supported by the Methodist church of the United States. The family told De Lima that Zuniga had been very critical of what he claims to be issues of corruption within the mainstream Methodist church which led to the recent breakaway of Zuniga’s denomination. I myself refuse to believe that a Christian could conspire against a fellow Christian. But Secretary De Lima was correct in noting that this too would have to be investigated by authorities.

Zuniga is not the only victim of enforced disappearance whom I represent. Prior to his disappearance, three Muslim scholars bound for Somalia disappeared presumably at Naia Terminal 3 where their domestic flight from Zamboanga landed. The three never made it to their connecting flight at Terminal 1. The three simply disappeared and their respective families only had the chance to claim their checked-in luggages one month after their disappearance. Like in Zuniga’s case, there has since been no lead on what happened to the three Muslims. Recently I wrote a letter to Secretary Mar Roxas of the Department of Transportation and Communication for him to convene a conference at the airport for all heads of security forces then present at Naia 3 on the date and time of the disappearance of three men. I am confident that given that the immediate arrival area at the Naia is a secure and sterile area, we could account for all security personnel who were in the vicinity of the arrival gate of the flight taken by the three missing scholars. Meanwhile, I have received unconfirmed reports form sources within the security sector that one of the three missing may have already been killed.

It’s ironic that these disappearances happened at the heel of the country’s recent universal peer review at the Human Rights Council. Almost all countries that quizzed De Lima on the Aquino administration’s human rights record expressed concern that the government is in breach of its obligation to promote and protect the right to life against both extralegal killings and enforced disappearances. The concerns were not that Aquino was behind these, but that this administration was not discharging its obligations to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of these killings and disappearances.

In fairness, I am sure that Aquino himself has never condoned these affronts on the right to life. Unfortunately, part of what international law demands of him is not just to publicly renounce these crimes, but also to punish the perpetrators thereof.

While the numbers of disappearances has not been as large as in other countries such as Peru, there is still reason for alarm. If Zuniga, a seasoned litigator, a respected member of the legal community in Bataan, and a respected church leader could disappear without a trace, what happens now to normal mortals when they disappear?

I shudder at the thought.




Geneva, Switzerland. The Philippines will be the object of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in May of this year by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Council is a body composed of 47 states tasked with the protection and promotion of human rights. The Council seeks to achieve its purpose through this periodic review, where states are asked by other states on the level of their compliance with human rights norms. This in turn is premised on the assumption that no state would want to be declared to be in breach of its human rights obligations. It also works through expert rapporteurs, both thematic and country specific, whose function is to conduct investigations to determine states’ compliance with their obligations.

As an adherent of humanitarian law that utilizes penology as an enforcement mechanism, I have been critical of how the UN implements human rights through this shaming machinery. But I had a different insight into the human rights mechanism when I saw it up close. To begin with, the world’s civil society is active here to ensure that non-compliant states are in fact shamed to the fullest. Further, one certainly gets the sense that with all states dutifully attending the many meeting of the UN here in Geneva, states do abhor the prospect of being branded as a violator. Judge Rosalynn Higgins said it succinctly: while violations of the rights of human beings are rampant, states will opt to deny that their conduct violate these rights and will instead argue that their conduct is either compliant or justified. She cited the case of torture. Amnesty International, who together with the German Action Network Human Rights-Philippines, are my hosts here- has once declared that almost all states commit torture. And yet, not one state will acknowledge this and all will still maintain that torture is illegal.
Why am I here? To participate in a side event to discuss human rights under P Noy and to lobby states to question the Philippines why extralegal killings (ELK’s), torture, and enforced disappearances (ED’s) persist.

I argued that extralegal killings, torture and enforced disappearances continue even now because their perpetrators have not been investigated, prosecuted and punished for their acts. Here, I traced the problem to a breakdown in the country’s pillars of its criminal justice system. First, the police do not know how to investigate. A recent study revealed that 8 out of 10 policemen are not trained and are hence incompetent to investigate crimes. There too is the PNP procedure that seeks first to identify the perpetrator of a crime before gathering and processing of physical evidence. Worse, in almost all the heinous crimes that I have been involved as a private prosecutor: the Maguindanao massacre, the Evangelista torture case, the Tanauan massacre, the Bicutan siege, to name only a few, policemen are the perpetrators of these crimes. How can they investigate themselves?

Second, the National Prosecution Service has failed to prosecute. The Perreño report commissioned by the Asia Foundation revealed that their conviction rate for Elk’s and ED’s is a measly  1% . Over-all, no less than the President has said that their conviction is a low of 14%. There may be many reasons for this -including lack of resources and manpower. But what appears to be obvious for now is their adamant refusal to be involved in the investigation of these crimes is responsible for their low conviction rate. Under human rights law, it is the state, acting through the police and the prosecutors, who must investigate and hence gather the evidence to meet the minimum threshold of evidence.

The Courts have at least, through former Chief Justice Reynato Puno, acknowledged that it is also in breach of their duty to protect and promote the right to life. This is due to the perennial problem of court delays and even the incompetence and lack of integrity of some of our Judges.

The decision to make the presentation here was not easy to make. I have been supportive of the administration of P Noy and make no apologies for it. But I opted to attend and am currently even lobbying the international community to confront the Philippines with the issues of ELK’s, torture, and ED’s for two reasons: one, a belief that true friend of an administration should not just sing odes of praise.  A friend should commend when it is deserved, and should criticize, when necessary. This is   not to overthrow it, but for it to become better. Secondly, I am here because you and I could be the next victims of these crimes.