NHRI in a Coercive Environment and a Culture of Impunity
Volume 20 Number 4
Friday, 06 November 2009 13:51
by Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA), July 2006


The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHRP) currently operates in a coercive environment and a culture of impunity.

A state of repression is happening within the context of the questioned legitimacy of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo presidency and of her perceived moves to maintain her hold on political power. There is increasing militarization in the rural areas up to the north and south entrances to Metro Manila with the seeming ubiquitous operations of death squads. The setting up of “super regions” delineated for development and investment herald the on-going and up coming development aggression and its concomitant human rights violations. The unabated, increasing extra-judicial executions, forced disappearances, torture and inhuman treatment, arrests, detentions and harassment of political activists, journalists, leaders of people’s organizations, church people, youth and ordinary citizens was meant to sow fear, curtail, among others, the right to information, the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and movement.
In this kind of situation, it is imperative that CHRP must take a pro-active stance. It must take an activist role to stem the repressive actions of the state and to break through the culture of impunity.


Empowering the Grassroots to Assert their Human Rights

The previously most acclaimed model of the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHRP) on grassroots empowerment program - the 7,270 Barangay Human Rights Action Centers (BHRACs) created throughout the whole Philippines in the past twelve years were dissolved by the current Commission in its Resolution of March 15, 2006.

Despite the many representations and offers for collaborations in setting up and strengthening of the BHRACs by human rights non-government organizations (NGOs); in their respective areas of service and activity, the CHRP has not even called the various stakeholders for a collective effort, much less an assessment prior to the making of such a resolution. This action reveals that the priority direction of the CHRP has been elsewhere, but not the empowering of the grassroots.

The de facto dissolution of the BHRACs through the CHRP Resolution of March 15, 2006 without a twelve-year assessment of the program’s existence and performance does not guarantee that the revitalization of the same will not contain the same weaknesses that brought about its demise. The same Resolution does even define a role for civil society and NGOs, specifically the human rights community, much less mention them at all.

Furthermore, the dissolution has also a bearing in the absence of a response by the CHRP regarding the manipulation and coercion done at the barangay level during a signature campaign for charter change dubbed “People’s Initiative”.

The BHRACs and the BHRAOs (Barangay Human Rights Action Officers) could have been an effective source of verification of human rights violations regarding the people’s right to information to make an informed decision or consent. By design or by default, the silence of the CHR contributes to the deceptive and coercive actions done with impunity. In a situation where such a political exercise is done in a coercive environment, absence of stand can easily be perceived as acquiescence to the violations.

“Empowering the grassroots to assert their human rights should be a priority direction taken by the CHRP to help dispel the atmosphere of fear and break through impunity.

In a situation of coercion and of impunity, timely CHRP positions are imperative.”

Background: The Barangay Human Rights Action Center (BHRAC) is the CHRP’s “flagship outreach program … in empowering the ordinary citizen to take the lead in the promotion and protection of human rights at the grassroots”, particularly at the barangay (village) level. This has been received with much enthusiasm by the non-governmental human rights community when the program was launched in 1994.

The potentials of the flagship outreach program are far reaching in terms of human rights education, paralegal training, documentation of human rights violations, monitoring of the state obligations as well as non-state responsibilities, such as logging and mining companies and armed opposition groups.

Pursuing Justice through the Legal Struggle

The repressive actions of the administration of Ms. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo done through political and military means make the struggles of people for democracy and human rights, individually and/or collectively, very difficult yet poignant.

Pursuing justice through the legal processes even in the face of extra-judicial killings and various harassments deserves solidarity from the CHRP till the resolution of such cases. It is hard enough for poor, aggrieved parties to file charges against military or police personnel, but shortcomings of CHR officers and personnel can both erode the courage of people and human rights defenders, and deepen the roots of impunity.

Here are some of the frustrating experiences in working with the Commission on Human Rights in Region XI, Davao City in Mindanao as per TFDP staff. 1

a. Case of Abdul Rahman Camili who was abducted on November 13, 2004 from barangay Datu Abdul, Panabo, Davao del Norte and later tortured.

Abdul Rahman Camili was turned-over to Davao City Jail (Bureau of Jail Management and Penology), Maa, Davao City in Mindanao on December 3, 2004. On December 16, the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) with support groups conducted Paskuhan sa kampo (Christmas camp/prison visit) with Moro (Muslim) detainees. The staff was able to see the victim who still bore torture marks. On December 17, TFDP staff called-up the CHR office and requested whether they could facilitate a medical examination of Camili by a doctor since TFDP and CHR were partners in the campaign against torture. In the morning of the next day, the TFDP staff interviewed Camili. Later, in the afternoon of the same day, the team of CHR with their investigator also visited Camili.

TFDP also wrote the commission and attached the proper documentation regarding the torture accounts of the victim. According to the commission during their visit, they did not find any torture marks on the body of Camili even if they asked him to remove his clothes still they did not find any indication that he was tortured. They also labeled the victim as not a credible witness because he was not saying the truth. According to the commission, Camili was saying during the TFDP interview that he was tortured and during their investigation, they did not find any torture marks.

On December 22, a TFDP staff visited Camili and asked him what happened during the interview of the commission’s investigators. He said that when he was asked if his lawyer already visited him, he replied no. The CHR investigator did not push through their investigation and left. The other detainee companion of Camil, when asked, also answered the same.

Dr. Basas in the CHR National Office was later informed about the non-action of the CHR region. According to Dr. Basas, the region said that when they visited the victim to conduct an interview, it was already late and that Camili’s torture marks were no longer visible. The staff insisted that the regional CHR conducted a visit last December 17. Furthermore, when the victim was visited again on December 22, the torture marks were still visible.. It was strange and suspicious why the CHR did not see any.

TFDP asked for a copy of their alleged report regarding their interview with the victim, but until now, none has been received..

b. The case of Japalali couple (Bacar and Carmen Japalali ) allegedly killed by members of 404th Infantry Battalion, Philippine Army on September 8, 2004 in Bincungan, Tagum City.

On October 4, 2004, TFDP facilitated the filing of a complaint on behalf of the victims addressed to Atty. Alberto Sipaco, Regional Director, but until now no information about any CHR intervention has been received..

On 25 October 2004, Rodolfo Baluyo, the father of Carmen executed an affidavit before the commission. He filed the complaint and Talib Japalali (brother of the victim) submitted the relevant documents of the case. However, until this date the commission has not taken any action and no investigation has been conducted in the area.

On March 13, 2006, TFDP wrote Atty. Sipaco with furnished copies of the information filed by the Office of the Ombudsman of the Military at the RTC branch 2, Tagum City against the accused military. TFDP was asking about the status of the CHR investigation because the families of the victims were eager to know the latter’s actions. Up to the time of this writing, no response was received from the commission.

There are also cases wherein human rights defenders among the NGOs encourage torture victims to file charges, especially when they know their perpetrators, but are let down by a lukewarm response from the CHR. Such is the case of Omar Ramalan2 from Maguindanao who was a suspect in a bombing incident. He was heavily tortured. The case was immediately brought to the attention of the CHR. The first case against Omar was dismissed for lack of merit. Only when Ramalan filed his case against his perpetrators did the CHR conduct an investigation. The court still has to act on his case. In the meantime, the police appealed their case and it was immediately granted. To fight his case, Omar has to submit himself to the court and remain in prison during the course of his trial which his counsel knows would be dismissed. But the thought of going back to jail after being tortured is not in the least pleasant. Omar has not yet presented himself. CHR has made no move in relation to the torture case.

But in the case of the high-profile Bicutan Siege3, the CHR has made an en banc resolution … after one year. The case involved deaths in custody of suspected members of the kidnap for ransom group, the Abu Sayyaf. The findings of the CHR were the occurrence of a massacre, extrajudicial executions, excessive use of force and inhuman treatment of the detainees. The CHR “has transmitted copies of the records and other relevant documentary evidence to the Office of the Ombudsman, the National Police Commission (NAPOLCOM), the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) for appropriate action.” In the meantime, encouraged by the Moro Human Rights Center, the aggrieved inmates are preparing charges against the heads and members of the assaulting teams based on the CHR findings. This is another chance to break impunity. But at the time of this writing, four months after the transmission, there is not even a docket number from the Office of the Ombudsman. And the original file of the case till recently cannot be found in any of the concerned offices of the National CHR.

While the CHR has no prosecutory power, it should not be an obstacle, much less an excuse, to pro-actively assisting in the efforts of victims of human rights violations and of human rights defenders in seeking redress. In fact, in the present situation, the CHR, if it is serious in halting the spread of a coercive environment and throwing its weight in breaking impunity, should strain the demarcation of its mandate. It could, for example, put up a Commission Task Force for Extrajudicial Executions which would sift through the cases of “salvagings” and concentrate on the few which promise a high percentage of prosecution and conviction of the perpetrators.

The CHR should be more determined and thorough in its investigations and in following up the resolution of cases to break impunity.

Persistent in demanding the State’s accountability of its obligations

In September 2003, several human rights NGOs made a parallel report for presentation to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC) on the occasion of the Philippine Government’s report on its implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The HRC made its conclusions and recommendations to the Philippine Government. Until now the CHR has not yet taken to task the government regarding the recommendations.

The CHR has now to give more effort in monitoring compliance of the Philippine Government specially in the situation that the Philippines is a member of the newly formed United Nations Human Rights Council.

The CHR has yet to maximize the Martus Program4 in gathering and sharing data so as to monitor government compliance at the different levels of governance. With the use of new technology for the past two years, it has yet to produce regular reports and analysis of the human rights situation in the country. The lack of monitoring and reporting abets non-compliance and impunity. The gathering and collation of data without redirecting them towards the seeking of justice could make the CHR a mere Archives of Human Rights Violations.

The CHR should be more thorough in its monitoring of State obligations and should redirect all gathered data towards the seeking of justice and the advancement of human rights.


In the pursuit of political and economic stability by the administration of Ms. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at all costs, human rights is a casualty and a victim. It is an imperative then to assert our common humanity, our common dignity, and our human rights.
The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines and the human rights movement should immediately converge personnel and resources, knowledge and skills, courage and determination to use all venues to promote, protect and advance our fundamental freedoms and human rights. Together we must establish our priorities to halt the spread of a coercive environment and break through impunity to obtain a larger freedom in all spheres of our own and our country’s life.

Note: As for urgency, the author of this paper has this to share. “Just as I was finishing this paper, I received a text message (20:51, 27-Jul-06): another human rights activist killed in Misamis Oriental in Mindanao.”

Author: Max M. de Mesa.. Presently Chairperson of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) which was set up in 1987 after the ouster of the dictator President Ferdinand E. Marcos; Member of the Board of Trustees of the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) which was established by the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP) in 1974, two years after the imposition of martial law; Convenor for the Citizens’ Council for Human Rights (Citizens’ CHR); Advisor to the Executive Committee of FORUM ASIA, a regional human rights organization based in Bangkok, Thailand

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Last Updated on Friday, 06 November 2009 15:04

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