Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Canadian human rights observers question Arroyo government's openness to international probe

PRESS RELEASE – 21 November 2006

Atty. Luningning Alcuitas, Philippines-Canadan Task Force for Human Rights Coordinator (09184974461)
Marie Hilao-Enriquez, KARAPATAN Secretary General (09065064188)

Members of the Canadian Fact-Finding Mission to the Philippines who were harassed by military personnel today questioned the openness of the Arroyo government to international probe. The Canadians suffered from military harassment.

"The military has tried to prevent us from speaking to residents of areas where there are reported human rights violations. They seem to be following orders to bar rights observers, opposite Pres. Arroyo's supposed openness for international probe," said Fil-Canadian lawyer Ning Alcuitas -Imperial who heads the Philippines-Canada Task Force for Human Rights.

The Southern Tagalog and Central Luzon teams of the fact-finding mission composed of Canadian delegates and Filipino human rights workers, suffered from military harassment. The Southern Tagalog team was stopped and held at seven detachments and police stations from San Narciso, Quezon to San Pablo.

"The soldiers and police have accosted us like we were criminals and were very arrogant. They tried to break the team apart and separate us from Filipino human rights workers and threatened to file obstruction of justice case against us. They were even forcing to get our travel documents but were unsuccessful," said Alcuitas who was joined in the team by fellow Canadians Cecilia Diocson and Jennifer Efting.

"We have informed local officials of our visit and they have agreed to our entry, why would the military veto local executives, is there martial law in the Philippines?" asked Alcuitas.

"If they have nothing to hide, why won't they allow the team to proceed with its mission? The harassment is aimed at preventing the mission from talking to victims but they were likewise unsuccessful because we have found a way to them," said Alcuitas.

Merryn Edwards, a member of the Central Luzon team of the Canadian Human Rights Fact-Finding Mission said, "We are completely appalled by the severity of the human rights violations and the level of militarization in Nueva Ecija,"

While traveling to collect testimony, the Fact-Finding Mission has passed through numerous Barangay Defense System (BDS) checkpoints, some located less than a kilometer apart and were hounded by motorcycle-riding soldiers, some in uniform and in plain clothes.

"We have learned that officially, civilian participation in the BDS is voluntary but citizens have told us that they are afraid that they will be targeted by the military if they do not participate," said Edwards who also said "Our impression is that this BDS system is promoting a climate of fear in these communities because non-compliance will result in being tagged as supporters of the insurgency." adds Edwards.

Edwards also was horrified at the obvious military rule and the breakdown of civilian rule in the places they visited. While the team tries to inform the Barangay Captain about their mission everytime they entere an area, it was clearly observed that the officials were in constant communication with the militaryas to our whereabouts and movement.

"In fact, barrangay officials were castigated by the military commander a day after we entered a village where a former councillor used to live and whose house was burned by suspected military elements,"continued Edwards.

"What kind of "functioning democracy" is this when it is the military that is calling the shots?" she asks. Edwards notes that in 2004, Canada has poured in $22 million Canadian in bilateral aid to the Philippines to improve 'good governance'.

Canadians who went to the Cordillera looked into recent cases of reported rights violations, including the frustrated killing of Rev. Billy Austin and other incidents involving peasant villagers and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Mike Leitold, a lawyer from the Law Union of Ontario notes that "The team's time in the Cordillera revealed an ongoing pattern of human rights abuses – particularly the assassinations of Romy Sanchez, Pepe Manegdeg, Albert Terredano and the attempt on Reverend Austin's life – aimed directly at those who provide a voice for the voiceless. Rural communities are being militarized by the AFP's campaign of counterinsurgency that harasses and intimidates the local people."

KARAPATAN Secretary General Marie Hilao-Erniquez meanwhile challenged the Arroyo government to "allow United Nations Special Rapporteurs and other international observers in the Philippines and let them do their work." During her trip to Geneva last month, she learned that Philippine authorities have not responded to requests of Special Rapporteurs.

Enriquez said their group have been suffering what the Canadian teams have suffered and more, as 27 of their leaders and human rights workers have been killed by state security forces, but no amount of harassment and intimidation could cow them from giving up their work to monitor and document human rights abuses by government forces.

"They should be the protectors, not the perpetrators, that is why the public has the right to make them accountable and the only decent response for government and the top-brass is to prosecute and punish offenders, not persecute human rights workers," Enriquez said.###


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