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President Arroyo: A Legacy of Killings and Disappearances in the Philippines?

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President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo called on lawmakers to enact legislation to put an end to the spate of political killings in her State of the Nation Address delivered on 23 July 2007. If the extrajudicial killings do not end, they may become the lasting legacy of her presidency.
“We fight terrorism. It threatens our sovereign, democratic, compassionate and decent way of life…It is never right and always wrong to fight terror with terror.” These words were spoken by President Gloria-Macapagal Arroyo during her seventh State of the Nation Address (SONA) delivered last Monday, 23 July 2007.

While her speech primarily outlined her vision of leaving a legacy of a Philippines that would join the ranks of rich countries within twenty years, President Arroyo also touched upon the subject of extrajudicial killings, which threatens to be the only lasting legacy of her presidency.

Human rights groups in the Philippines allege that over 800 political activists, journalists and human rights defenders have been killed since President Arroyo came into power in 2001. In a report published after a 10-day inquiry, Phillip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions stated that the response to the killings at the executive level had been “mixed and often unsatisfactory.”1 In a detailed report released on 28 June 2007, Human Rights Watch alleged that there is “strong evidence of a ‘dirty war’ by the armed forces against left-leaning activists and journalists.” And that “the failure to prosecute soldiers or police suspected in these killings shift the spotlight of responsibility to the highest levels of government.”2

Amid the mounting criticism from local and foreign entities alike, President Arroyo urged Congress in her speech to “transform state responses to political violence.” She called on lawmakers to enact laws “to protect witnesses from lawbreakers and law enforcers” and “to guarantee swift justice from more empowered special courts.” In addition, she called for “harsher penalties for political killings.”

“We must wipe this stain from our democratic record,” the President said. This is not the first time that she has acknowledged the problem of extrajudicial killings and called for action: President Arroyo convened the Melo Commission in 2006 to probe the issue and invited UN envoy Phillip Alston to the country to conduct an inquiry. However, despite the numerous recommendations that have been brought forward, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, reportedly by members of the military and police, continue unabated. As recently as a week ago, the leader of an urban poor group in Tacloban City, Charlie Solayao, was shot dead at point-blank range.3

If President Arroyo is truly committed to depoliticising the national agenda and working for the “people’s well-being and the nation’s progress,” she must ensure that the proposed legislation on extrajudicial killings is prioritised and that perpetrators, whether military or civilian, are prosecuted without impunity. Moreover, as Bayan Muna Representative Satur Ocampo pointed out, she should exercise her executive initiative to issue a direct order to state forces, purportedly behind the killings, to end the killings. Doing so would demonstrate that the Philippines is truly a democracy committed to protecting and promoting the rights of the people.

It is imperative that the President leads the government in acting against impunity. Until actual prosecutions take place, judgment on President Arroyo’s legacy remains suspended. If she follows through on her recommendations, she can hopefully report with pride next year on the government’s success in putting a stop to the killings, much the same way she outlined the government’s achievements in developing the “Super Regions” in this year’s speech.

“Press Statement” <>

“Philippines Prosecute Political Killings” <>

“Press Statement” <>