PHILIPPINES: Authorities failing to investigate house demolitions, torture, disappearances and killing of civilians resulting from the conflict in Mindanao

September 4, 2009

Twelfth session � Item 4

A written statement submitted by the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a non-governmental organisation with general consultative status

PHILIPPINES: Authorities failing to investigate house demolitions, torture, disappearances and killing of civilians resulting from the conflict in Mindanao

The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) is concerned by the fact that the government of the Philippines is failing to protect civilians from grave and widespread abuses of human rights in conflict-affected parts of the country�s southern Mindanao island. In particular, the police and law enforcement agencies� failure to conduct investigations into a litany of abuses ascribed to the Philippines military forces and government-backed militias or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), is creating a cycle of abuses and impunity that must be addressed.

While a cease-fire was declared on July 29, 2009, fighting is in reality still ongoing in some areas, and reports indicate that an estimated 200�000 of the over 700�000 individuals that became internally displaced persons (IDPs) since fighting in the decade-long conflict escalated in August 2008, remain displaced and in precarious conditions, including being at risk of further human rights abuses. The alleged violations that have been taking place include numerous cases of burning of houses, forced disappearances, torture and extra-judicial killings. Civilians have been caught in the crossfire of the conflict and were being targeted by both sides.

Media and NGO access blocked unjustifiably: It is difficult to ascertain the full extent of the violations that have been committed during the conflict, as access to many areas has been restricted during the last year and remains difficult despite the cease-fire. The military and other militia forces have been blocking journalists and NGOs seeking to document the situation from entering areas under their control. The military are claiming that they have been justifiably restricting media and NGO access �for their protection� and were not doing so to deliberately prevent the documentation of human rights violations. However, as has been shown in the previous phases of this conflict and in the well-documented cases of hundreds of extra-judicial killings and other violations attributed to the military that have taken place across the Philippines in recent years, the military is a known grave abuser of human rights. Furthermore, the military is not even allowing the police to conduct effective investigations into allegations of abuses, making it evident that the blanket restrictions on NGOs and media access that have been in place over the last year were designed specifically to ensure impunity for the perpetrators of human rights violations.

The lack of investigations by the police: Despite the fact that the Philippine National Police (PNP) has jurisdiction over all of the country and has the mandate to conduct investigations into allegations of crimes, it is singularly failing to conduct any effective investigations into cases of torture, forced disappearance or extra-judicial killings allegedly committed by the military in Mindanao. As is the case with the spectrum of institutions and agencies in the Philippines, the PNP is effectively subservient to the military. Wherever it deems fit, the military usurps the police�s role and unilaterally conducts “investigations” or arrests and detains persons it suspects of having involvement in rebel activities. Furthermore, the PNP is colluding with the military and wilfully failing to carry out investigations into allegations of abuses by the military, in order to guarantee impunity for these acts.

For example, in the case of 37-year-old farmer, Katog Sapalon, who was shot dead in front of his family in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao on July 3, 2009, the police reportedly deliberately failed to fully investigate the case as soldiers had carried out the killing. The police did not register the case in their daily log. With no record of the case or registered complaints, the case does not officially exist and impunity is guaranteed, as the victim�s family cannot seek legal remedies. The collusion between the police and military means that victims, their relatives or anyone seeking to make complaints of abuses are discouraged from doing so, notably as such persons not only fail from the outset in their attempts to have a case recorded and an investigation launched, but they will often also then face reprisals by state-agents or government-backed thugs or militias. The hundreds of cases of severe harassment, death threats or extra-judicial killings of human rights defenders in the Philippines is testimony to this.

Grave violations of rights by the State and the rebels: The MILF stands accused of a range of grave crimes and abuses, notably the killing of civilians and the burning of houses. The ALRC strongly condemns all acts of violence and the targeting of civilians by the MILF and calls on the rebels to immediately halt all such abuses and to cooperate with investigations into violations attributed to members of the MILF.

High-ranking members of the MILF have been identified and charged in court in relation to having orchestrated murders and violence targeting civilian communities. While it is incumbent on the authorities to bring these criminals to justice, the end does not justify the means. The government’s manhunt for the MILF leadership has in itself caused deaths and large displacements of civilians wherever the fighting has raged. Civilians have been killed as a result of indiscriminate aerial bombardments. Others have been summarily executed on mere suspicion of being members of the rebel group, because they were present in areas in which military operations against the rebels were taking place. Furthermore, many other civilians have been abducted, detained, tortured and/or forcibly disappeared by the military, as the result of arbitrary, questionable suspicions.

Concerning abuses by the authorities, despite the difficulties in accessing the affected areas and information due to restrictions imposed by the military, the ALRC has obtained sworn statements from witnesses concerning the following cases: the burning of 150 houses in Talayan and 79 houses in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, all in Maguindanao; the burning of 92 houses in Midsayap, North Cotabato; the arrest, detention and torture of eight persons; the extra-judicial killing of a civilian and the enforced disappearance of another. These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. For example, a local organisation reported the killing of 12 civilians, five of whom were children, and the wounding of 22 others in the month of September 2008, during military offensives in Central Mindanao. The civilians in these cases were killed either by aerial bombardments by the military or while caught in fighting between soldiers and the rebels. Most of these cases have not been registered with the local police forces for investigation, or with the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), or filed in court. Some victims of abuse have sought legal remedies by filing complaints with the regional office of the CHR, however, endemic delays in the complaints resolution systems of the CHR and notably the State�s justice delivery mechanisms, demoralise these complainants and obstruct their attempts to seek justice.

IDPs: The military has also forced civilians to leave their homes, which were then burned, on the pretext that they were being used as shelter for the rebels. As of May 2009, the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) had recorded 146,570 IDP families, comprising 703,949 individuals, which had been displaced as a result of the conflict in three regions in Mindanao. A significant portion of the IDPs have been taking shelter in various evacuations centres, while many others have been staying with their relatives, because they have been unable to return home. Conditions in many of the evacuation centres are reportedly very poor, with little food or drinking water, sanitation problems and limited access to medical assistance, which have resulted in disease and deaths.

Reports also indicate that the military has prevented food and relief supplies from being provided to the IDPs. This blockade has been imposed upon already vulnerable IDPs on the pretext that the goods end up in the hands of the rebels. The military authorities have also begun publicly labelling the IDPs as being an �enemy reserve force.� On June 30, 2009, Lt. Col. Jonathan Ponce, spokesperson of the 6th Infantry Division, openly labelled the IDPs as being an �enemy reserve force� during a media forum comprising military and civilian officials at the Estosan Garden Hotel in Cotabato. This statement is evidence of the military�s mentality with regard to civilians living in areas in which they are prosecuting the fight against the MILF. It is hardly surprising, therefore, to find that grave and widespread violations have been perpetrated by the military and that attempts are being made to cover these up and justify them as part of the fight against the MILF.

Government-backed militias committing abuses: Despite the long overdue implementation of recommendations by Special Procedures to the government of the Philippines to abolish the militia forces, the government has continued arming poorly trained militia forces and using them to perform functions that should be carried out by trained regular force, if at all. The militias have received significant logistical and financial support from the government, and have been used as �force multipliers� in some parts of Mindanao under the government’s counter-insurgency efforts and campaign against terrorism. These militia have also been accused of committing human rights abuses, and in fact, are being blamed for instigating the resumption of conflict in some parts of North Cotabato. The militias include: the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Unit (CAFGU) and Civilian Volunteer Organisation (CVOs), which are armed and trained by the military; and the Police Auxiliaries (PAX), which are under the direct supervision of the PNP. As an indication, in September 2007 there were an estimated 60�000 CAFGU active members who were carrying out combat operations in support of regular army forces.

Given the above, interventions by the Human Rights Council and its relevant Special Procedures are needed urgently, in order to ensure that the government puts a halt to abuses by the military, dismantles the militias, allows full access to independent investigators and guarantees that all allegations of human rights violations, whether by the State or the MILF, are effectively investigated and prosecuted. Both sides to the conflict must ensure that the cease-fire is full implemented and halt the targeting of civilians. The personal security and integrity of all civilians, notably the hundreds of thousands of IDPs, must be guaranteed.

The government must make available to the Council detailed information concerning the actions taken by the police, the government and the country�s justice delivery mechanisms concerning the individual cases of human rights violations that have been reported to the police or those that the Commission on Human Rights has received and that require action by the State.

About ALRC

The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) works towards the radical rethinking & fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in Asia, to ensure relief and redress for victims of human rights violations, as per Common Article 2 of the International Conventions. Sister organisation to the Asian Human Rights Commission, the ALRC is based in Hong Kong & holds general consultative status with the Economic & Social Council of the United Nations.

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