MANILA, Philippines — In what seemed a rare occurrence, some of the country’s policymakers and segments of the Left agreed Sunday on one thing.
They welcomed Chief Justice Reynato Puno’s proposal for a broad-based summit next month to discuss reforms the courts could undertake to curb political killings in the country.
Even an occasional critic of the Supreme Court, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, found some merit in the idea.
But reaction was lacking from the military — the main government unit involved in the problem of political killings — despite Philippine Daily Inquirer efforts to contact its officials.
“We see no problem with that,” National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales told reporters, referring to the Puno proposal. “Justice Puno’s statements were good, we support that. I’m glad all branches of government are giving attention to this issue.”
Malacañang also appeared supportive of the high court’s renewed interest in again tackling presidential Executive Order No. 464, which has shielded President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s political and security advisers from legislative inquiries without her consent.
Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Hermogenes Esperon had indicated he planned to invoke the controversial EO should he and other military officers be summoned by Senator-elect Antonio Trillanes IV to shed light on the unresolved killings under the Arroyo administration.
Presidential chief legal counsel Sergio Apostol told reporters: “We’re willing to sit down with them and discuss what could be changed and what could not be changed.”
‘Don’t touch it’
In a dinner with Inquirer editors on Thursday, Puno said the high court would welcome the opportunity to “tighten gray areas” in its 2006 decision upholding portions of EO 464.
But Apostol stressed that EO 464’s main provision demanding prior consultation with Ms Arroyo on any congressional appearances was non-negotiable.
“This should not be touched. This has already been declared constitutional by the Supreme Court,” he said.
The Inquirer tried but failed to reach defense and military officials to get their reactions.
Gonzalez sounded receptive to the idea of a summit to help prevent political killings, saying it could lead to the speeding up of court processes.
A 2-bladed sword
But he also said that reviewing the concept of “command responsibility,” one of the possible topics in the proposed summit, could be a “double-edged sword,” and asked if it would lead to the Supreme Court itself being held liable for judges’ errors.
The justice secretary said he was willing to attend and air his views in the summit to discuss how the high court could use its expanded powers under the Constitution to protect civil liberties.
“If he’ll propose rules of court to speed up the processes, that would be OK as long as it’s not at the sacrifice of due process,” Gonzalez said.
Asked whether he thought the high court might encroach on the powers of the legislature, he said he would have to first see the parameters of Puno’s suggestions.
He said he wanted to believe the Chief Justice was acting in good faith in proposing such a summit.
“Let us assume the Chief Justice is acting in good faith, that what he wants is to help simplify methods so that long-dragged out processes would be addressed,” he said, adding that he was not against reforms.
As for revisiting the idea of “command responsibility,” Gonzalez agreed that it would be a “ticklish” matter.
“There are laws on command responsibility. Will it mean that the mistake of a judge is also the fault of the Chief Justice? You’re talking here of command responsibility. Will it go that far? It could be a double-edged sword,” he said.
Gonzalez also said the court’s power to cite people in contempt should have limits. But he added that he did not think Puno would allow judges or justices to abuse such a power.
In discussing the new rules that the high tribunal could promulgate, Puno floated the idea of imposing sanctions, like being cited in contempt, on officials who fail to follow standards in handling cases of forced disappearances.
Puno has condemned the extrajudicial killings, describing them as “the ultimate violation of human rights.”
The human rights group Karapatan has tallied at least 863 cases of political killings since Ms Arroyo took office in 2001. The Inquirer tally, which only includes identified militants, stands at 297.
The killings have whipped up international outrage, even from some of Ms Arroyo’s close foreign allies.
Puno said the killings were an “assault on the rule of law” and an “indictment of the judicial system.”
An official of the militant farmers’ group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas described Puno’s summit plan as “unprecedented.”
“We will support it as long as we get the assurance that everything will be done to stop the killings and abductions done by state forces against the people,” said KMP secretary general Danilo Ramos in a statement on Sunday.
A time bomb
In calling for a summit focusing on violations of civil liberties, Ramos said the Puno-led Supreme Court was “taking the bull by the horns.”
“[It is] facing the problem head on, unlike Malacañang, which keeps skirting the issue and blaming the victims,” he said.
Ramos hoped the summit would elaborate on mechanisms “to enhance the civil liberties of the people and curtail the repressive powers of the state, especially now that [the anti-terror law] is about to be implemented next month.”
He compared the civil rights situation in the country to a “ticking time bomb.”
In an effort to stop the killings of militant farmers, Ramos said the KMP would host international fact-finding missions of the Asian Peasant Coalition starting July 5.
The missions will look into situations in disputed estates in Southern Tagalog, Central Luzon and Cagayan Valley, he said.
Senators were divided on some aspects of the Puno proposal.
Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson said he was in favor of the high court reassessing EO 464 “so that it would leave no room for Malacañang and Esperon’s self-serving interpretations.”
Sen. Joker Arroyo said the EO 464 case should not be brought up to the high court again because it “does not look good having the Supreme Court come in between whenever Malacañang and the Senate have a fight.”
Interviewed on dzBB radio, Arroyo said Malacañang and the Senate should hold “conferences” to patch out their differences to avoid raising their disagreements to the high court.
“Even disputes between private persons can be resolved without going to court through discussions. Malacañang and the Senate should set an example to the public,” he said. With reports from Christine O. Avendaño in Manila, and Tonette Orejas, Inquirer Central Luzon