Foreword: The rotten criminal justice system of the Philippines must be cleaned out

Basil Fernando, Executive Director, Asian Human Rights Commission & Asian Legal Resource Centre, Hong Kong

To the ordinary person in the Philippines, neither the police nor the prosecution and courts inspire any confidence. While the country¡¦s elite is good at the use of sophisticated and elegant rhetoric on justice and democracy¡Xsometimes couched in the jargon of the right, sometimes of the left¡Xthe ordinary person knows that it is far removed from reality. The fine words of the constitution, the bill of rights and various laws ostensibly introduced to protect the people are completely divorced from the crass reality of the absolutely inefficient, corrupt and careless policing, prosecuting and adjudicating systems.

Within the last couple of years, the Asian Legal Resource Centre and Asian Human Rights Commission have gathered hundreds of stories that speak to this gap between fine words and reality. Over a hundred of them are contained in this report, ¡§The criminal justice system of the Philippines is rotten¡¨ (article 2, vol. 6, no. 1, February 2006). The stories reveal a pattern of extreme cruelty and state complicity. Filipinos are being threatened, tortured, abducted, killed and destroyed with a brutality that no civilised state would permit. This cruel behaviour is permitted, and encouraged, because the country¡¦s institutions for criminal justice are in fact so barbaric that together they bear no resemblance to any modern system of justice.

Most in the Filipino elite will find such remarks offensive. They will respond that their laws are modern: many of them adapted from those of the United States and other longer-established jurisdictions; the constitution has assimilated modern international human rights jurisprudence. They will point out that the Philippines has ratified more international laws on human rights than other countries in Asia, and its government is outspoken on human rights in regional countries, such as Burma. But where are these laws found to be implemented effectively? How many Filipinos enjoy the rights promised to them under United Nations conventions?

Rights are made real not through the enactment of laws but their implementation. Implementation depends on institutions: police, prosecutors, courts. If these do not function at all, or other than as envisaged under the laws, then grand declarations of rights remain meaningless and people¡¦s lives are made miserable.

In the Philippines, law-enforcement agencies are utterly corrupt and unscrupulous in their dealings with the public. If rights on paper are ever to be given life there, the top priority must be to transform the country¡¦s errant and self-serving policing system to one that will serve the people.

The public prosecutors are closely associated with the role of the police. Prosecutors are integral in ensuring that criminal justice works with integrity and speed. What if they too are corrupt or deeply politicized? What if they are unable to challenge powerful and connected criminals? What if they are deliberately neglected so as to prevent them becoming a threat to persons at the highest levels of government who abuse their power? These are critical questions for people in the Philippines seeking to defend human rights and democracy there.

Where policing and prosecuting are rotten, so too must be adjudicating. In fact, complaints about the courts are common among Filipinos. It is even difficult to find an ardent defender of the system among the legal profession or intellectuals. Citizens going to the courts in search of relief often find their suffering compounded. But to where else should they turn to obtain comfort and resolve their problems?

Ultimately, working criminal justice is about wellbeing. While a lot of the talk about people¡¦s wellbeing comes in the form of development jargon, it underestimates or altogether ignores the necessity for working courts, prosecutors and police. Where talk about development and social progress does not adequately address institutions for the rule of law and human rights it is empty talk: sweet rhetoric that will not alter the bitter reality. The task for people in the Philippines is to raise discussion on how to expurgate the country¡¦s rotten criminal justice institutions in order to give meaning to discourse on human rights, democracy and development. This report is intended as a small contribution towards that end.

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