By Chip Gibbons, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
While many believed the era of rampant infringement of human rights, extra-judicial killings, disappearance, and general harassment of civil society members in the Philippines would come to an end when Gloria Macpagal-Arroyo left the presidency a culture of impunity has allowed human rights violations to continue uninterrupted. In the first six-months of her successor President Noynoy Aquino’s administration the human rights group Karaptan documented, 4 forced disappearances, and 19 instances of torture. As recently as February 25, 2011, Rodel Estrellado, a member for the leftist party Bayan Muana, was abducted and killed.
While the Filipino state has largely failed in holding those guilty of gross human rights violations accountable civil society is seeking to fill this void. Last week, the United Church of Christ Philippines launched a civil suit against Arroyo. The suit alleges that as commander-in-chief Arroyo is responsible for the deaths at the hands of the military of 30 church members, as well as the illegal arrest and torture of another member.
The timing of this lawsuit is quite awkward for Arroyo as was filed just a week before she was scheduled to attend a meeting of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty in Madrid, Spain. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo may at first glance seem like an ideal speaker for an organization dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment--an outspoken opponent of the practice since her career as a Senator in the early 1990s, she as President was behind the (second) abolition of capital punishment in the Philippines and commuted the death sentences of over a 1,000 prisoners. However, her presidency was mired by a much darker side--the extrajudicial killing and forced disappearance of trade unionist, human rights defenders, and other civil society activist. Karapatan had estimated the number of extra-judicial killings during her presidency as being 1,250.
Amid growing concern for the human rights situation the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston visited the Philippines in 2007. He found that in the name counter-insurgency operations against the armed-wing of the Communist Party, the New People’s Army, government killings had “eliminated civil society leaders, including human rights defenders, trade unionists and land reform advocates...”
Trade unionist were frequent victims both of the conflation of civil society with insurgency, as well as extra-judicial killings. A 2010 ILO Committee on Freedom of Association noted that “blanket linkages of trade unions to the insurgency had a stigmatizing effect and often placed union leaders and members in a situation of extreme insecurity.”
Indeed trade unionist found themselves in a situation of “extreme insecurity.” This trend continued throughout the entirety of Arroyo’s administration and into Aquino’s. In their latest report (2010), which covers the last six months of Arroyo’s term and the first six months of Aquino’s, The Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR), documented 100 violations of trade union rights. Additionally, CTUHR documented 5 murders of trade unionist, 2 of which occurred while Arroyo was still in office. CTUHR’s report also found “Trumped-up criminal charges continue to be filed against labour leaders, and the military continues to intervene, intimidating legal organizations like trade unions that are merely exercising their legal and democratic rights.” The bulk of these human rights abuses per the report “can still be attributed to the government’s continuing counter-insurgency operations tagging workers as communist supporters, and unions as a breeding ground for the communist movement.”
Violent harassment of trade unionist and other civil society actors has continued thanks in part to the the culture of impunity that is part of Arroyo’s legacy. Given this tainted legacy it is hypocritical for Arroyo to jet set across the globe condemning state-sanctioned violence.