Aquino’s Human Rights Problem

Ex-Philippine President Gloria Arroyo’s human rights record was bad. But her successor isn’t living up to his pledges.

The Philippines is often recognized by global institutions for its strong commitment to human rights. Indeed, compared with other countries in the region, where government critics are given insanely long prison sentences and media reports are heavily censored by the authorities, the freedom loving Philippines may seem like a viable and vibrant democratic state to the casual international observer.

But the existence of Western-style democracy in the country doesn’t mean it’s fully compliant with international human rights norms. There’s a free press in the Philippines, but it’s also one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. Activists and political dissidents are free to organize rallies and assemblies even without securing police permits, but many of them have become victims of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances over the past decade.

Indeed, human rights violations became so intense during the incumbency of Gloria Arroyo that a U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions visited the Philippines in 2007 to investigate the rise in political killings, torture, and kidnapping in the country. Arroyo’s atrocious human rights record was also one of the major issues in last year’s presidential elections, which saw a landslide victory for the opposition.

And since President Benigno Aquino III was one of the leaders who decried the human rights violations committed by the previous administration, human rights groups had high expectations that the killings of activists and journalists would stop. And the killings did stop, but only for a brief time.

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To the surprise of human rights defenders, the new government hasn’t bothered to file appropriate charges against military officials involved in well-documented cases of human rights violations. Activists demanded an end to the climate of impunity that allowed perpetrators of the most heinous crimes against humanity to remain unpunished, but they received no concrete response from the government.

And since the Philippines is confronted with two insurgencies – the world’s longest communist insurgency and a Muslim separatist movement – the slow pace of peace negotiations between the government and the rebels means more civilians are being harmed or killed in conflict areas. Thousands of villagers have also been forced to evacuate their homes in many parts of Mindanao Island because of military operations and the armed activities of rebels.

Aquino should remember the promises he made during his campaign if he wants to address these human rights issues. First, he should mainstream a pro-human rights agenda in the policymaking process. Second, he should tackle the roots of the armed conflict as his government prepares to fast track the peace talks with both the communist and Muslim rebels.