Philip Alston

by Chris Pforr
December 5, 2007


On November 26, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Philip Alston released his final “Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions” in the Philippines. The report is a long-awaited follow-up to his visit to the Philippines last February, a ten-day investigative trip made at the invitation of the Philippine government. During that visit he met with President Arroyo and her cabinet secretaries, top military and police leadership, members of Congress, the Chief justice of the Supreme Court, representatives of the MNLF and MILF (Muslim separatist groups), and a diverse selection of civil society groups.


Mr. Alston’s February visit was precipitated by a degenerating human rights situation in the Philippines, characterized by increasing numbers of extrajudicial executions, disappearances and incidences of torture. The independent Philippine human rights group Karapatan counts 885 extrajudicial killings during the past six years of President Arroyo’s presidency.


The UN Report is comprehensive; perhaps most significant amongst its findings are the following:
1. The Armed Forces of the Philippines has a counter-insurgency strategy which targets ‘front groups’ of the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines), resulting in leaders of legal leftist organizations being systematically hunted down and killed or abducted following campaigns of individual vilification designed to instill fear into their communities;
2. The priorities of the (Philippine) criminal justice system have been distorted, with an increasing focus on prosecuting civil society leaders rather than their killers.

The report has evoked a flurry of strong reactions within the Philippines. Newspapers have been full of commentary from members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Arroyo administration (negative reactions); members of organizations which have been victimized by the crimes (mostly positive reactions); and media editorials (both pro and con reactions.)


One important context of the killings is the ongoing insurgencies in the Philippines:
1. The New Peoples Army (NPA), the military wing of the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), has been waging an insurgency campaign against the Philippine government since the group was formed in 1969. The Arroyo administration has been negotiating intermittently with the NPA in European countries, while simultaneously waging an iron-fist military campaign to eliminate the rebels in the field.
2. Three separatist Muslim groups in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago in the Southern Philippines have also been waging a secessionist war against the Philippine government: the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front), MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) and the Abu Sayyaf group. This war has dragged on in various forms over the past 400 years, pitting the largely Muslim south against the Catholic north of the country.


It is important to note that in 1992 the Communist Party was legalized, and in 1994 President Ramos signed into law a general conditional amnesty covering all rebel groups. Likewise in 1996 the government signed a peace treaty with the Moro National Liberation Front. It was hoped that these initiatives would bring leftist revolutionaries and Muslim separatists into the mainstream political process as a step towards resolving the insurgencies plaguing the country. Unfortunately, talks between the government and the NPA/CPP were unproductive, and in 2000 President Joseph Estrada declared an "all-out war" policy aimed at the Muslim MILF in Mindanao.


On the bright side, some marginalized civil society groups did enthusiastically engage the government on its offer to enter the legal political arena. Beginning in 1998, a number of leftist organizations were able to get their leaders elected to the House of Representatives via the party-list system of proportional representation. Meanwhile, the MNLF is the ruling party of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.


Many members of the military and civilian leadership are dissatisfied that “leftists” have been elected to Congress. Indeed, the AFP’s order of battle, a copy of which was surreptitiously provided to Mr. Alston, names civilians members of ‘front groups’ as targets in the current counterinsurgency campaign. In the absence of repeal of the Anti-Subversion Act which legalized the CPP, such targeting is clearly illegal.


A second important context of the killings is that of the US Government’s Global War on Terrorism. In 2001 following the 911 attacks, the US Government designated the Philippines as a “Second Front” (after Afghanistan) in the War on Terror. Philippine President Gloria-Macapagal Arroyo was an early and enthusiastic enlistee in the campaign. In 2002 US Secretary of State Colin Powell designated the CPP/NPA/NDF as a foreign terrorist organization, and in 2003 President Bush labeled the Philippines as a “visible front” in the war on terror. Relations between the US military and the AFP, which had been chilled since 1992 when the Philippines closed long-time US bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field, began to warm again. The Philippines was rewarded with increased military aid, joint military training with US troops, establishment of new US “cooperative security locations”, and US military guidance in the Southern counterinsurgency war. The US Government has also obligingly looked the other way while the AFP ratcheted up extrajudicial executions, abductions and torture.


Since Mr. Alston’s February visit there has been heightened worldwide attention to the Philippines situation. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both issued 2007 reports addressing the human rights situation. In June the Chief Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court sponsored a Human Rights Summit to encourage the judiciary to take a more proactive stand. In November the US Senate set conditions for the release of an additional $2 million in military assistance, tied to progress in resolving the killings.


Recently, the overall numbers of killings have decreased. Two days ago Karapatan (Alliance for the Advance of People’s Rights) reported that there have been only 68 extrajudicial killings in 2007 compared to last year’s 209, and attributed the improvement to international pressure. However, in spite of the reduced numbers, neither President Arroyo nor the AFP leadership have evinced any culpability for the killings; so it is questionable as to whether anything has really changed, or whether those who want to “get rid of troublemakers” are just lying low.


The Philippines human rights situation is extremely complicated. Mr. Alston has provided a road map for dealing with some of the issues regarding human rights abuses, but the concerned parties are very far from reaching any kind of consensus to deal with the underlying issues. While the glare of world attention has produced a temporary lull in the killing, there seems little chance that the situation will be fundamentally resolved anytime soon.


The UN Special Rapporteur’s report can be downloaded here: