Puno: Time to use power of judiciary
Militants sit beside ‘suspects’ at summit
MANILA, Philippines — Lady Justice must now “unsheathe (her) unused power” if elected political leaders entrusted with upholding human rights cannot fulfill that role, Chief Justice Reynato Puno said Monday at the unprecedented summit he called to stem the surge of extrajudicial killings in the country.
Puno did not hide his frustration over the inadequacies of the system in dealing with extrajudicial killings.
“Over the years, the expectation that human rights could best be protected by the political branches of government has been diluted,” Puno said as he opened the two-day National Consultative Summit on Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances – Searching for Solutions.
“Elected officials usually go for what is popular, but the vindication of human rights sometimes demand taking unpopular decisions, especially in instances where, due to technicalities, the right of the righteous is trumped by the rights of the wicked,” he told the forum of some 250 delegates and observers, including 28 foreign diplomats and development workers.
“Elected officials sometimes demur in making decisions that will displease their powerful constituencies,” the top magistrate noted before the gathering at the Manila Hotel, where a few seats separate human rights advocates and aggrieved parties from the “usual suspects” in the killings — the military and police.
“Elected officials are sometimes more interested in high-profile issues or with greater impact on the larger number of their constituents. Oftentimes, however, human rights cases are low profile especially when they affect the marginalized, or people whose existence some would hardly recognize or worse, people dismissed as invisibles of society,” Puno said.
Alluding to the Marcos dictatorship, he recalled how the executive branch could “run roughshod” over human rights while the Legislature could choose to be “powerless” and “default” on its duties to protect those rights.
Revive righteous indignation
The Chief Justice said that if there were compelling reasons for the summit, “one of them is to prevent losing eye contact with these killings and disappearances, revive our righteous indignation, and spur our united search for the elusive solution to this pestering problem.”
A video presentation prepared by the Supreme Court cited different figures representing the total number of activists and media practitioners slain under the Arroyo administration.
But one thing was obvious: If all the victims since 2001 were to be gathered in one place, they would far outnumber the summit participants.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR), for example, placed the number of slain victims at 403 from 2001 to May 31, 2007. Task Force Usig — the Malacañang-created police panel tasked with solving the cases — pegged the total at 115.
The human rights alliance Karaparatan reported 863 deaths over the last six years.
Counting slain journalists alone, the CHR said 26 had been killed since 2001; the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility counted 33; while the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines reported 46.
Failure of justice system
Karapatan said there was a failure of the justice system in the hundreds of cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
Dr. Edelina de la Paz, Karapatan chair, said witnesses were not the only ones that stay away from shedding light on such human rights violations.
Judges and prosecutors also become ineffective in deciding and handling cases of political slays and enforced disappearances because of fear of reprisal from state agents, who may have committed the killings and abductions, according to De la Paz.
For her part, the leader of an NGO seeking justice for victims of forced disappearance pressed President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to take a “stronger action” against enforced disappearances, and certify as urgent a bill penalizing this crime.
Nilda Lagman-Sevilla, co-chair of the Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearances (FIND), asked the President to “sincerely” condemn enforced disappearances, and send a strong message to security forces that she meant business by holding officials accountable.
Sevilla, whose brother, human rights lawyer Hermon Lagman, disappeared during martial law, lamented that the “uphill battle” for justice by the families of the victims had been made “laborious” by the lack of law penalizing the crime of enforced disappearance.
Puno said he called for the summit after observing that the people’s “sense of shock has been anaesthetized by the escalation of the killings and disappearances despite the size of the space given to them by the print media.
“If you scratch the surface further, you will discover that a large slice of our people appear to have their concern over these killings and disappearances interred by time,” he added.
The summit was aimed at gathering inputs on how the judiciary can expand its role in addressing the spate of unsolved murders and abductions of activists and journalists deemed critical of the government.
Puno earlier spoke in press interviews about possibly reconfiguring the rules of evidence, reviewing the principle of command responsibility, and finding other legal remedies when the writ of habeas corpus proved ineffective in forcing authorities to produce missing persons.
“New rules” and “higher standards” for government agents responsible for solving human rights cases can be formulated by the judiciary, using a power granted by the 1987 Constitution, which the Supreme Court has yet to invoke, he then explained.
“The paucity of power of the judiciary in checking human rights violations was remedied by stretching its rule-making prerogative,” he said, referring to Article VIII, Section 5 of the Constitution.
The Charter, he said, was framed by constitutional commissioners who saw how human rights were “trivialized during the authoritarian years” of the Marcos regime.
The framers, with their “bountiful bias in favor of human rights,” reexamined the “balance of power” among the three branches of government.
“The reexamination easily revealed that under the then existing balance of power, the Executive, thru the adept deployment of the Commander in Chief, can run roughshod over our human rights, (while) a supine Legislature can betray the human rights of the people by defaulting to enact appropriate laws.”
“For there is nothing you can do when Congress exercises its power to be powerless,” he noted.
“Our constitutional commissioners were endowed with prophetic eyes,” he said. “For two decades later, we would be bedeviled by extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances that would expose the frailties of our freedom, the inadequacy of our laws, if not the inutility of our system of justice.”
“Given these vulnerabilities, the judiciary, on its part, has decided to unsheathe its unused power to enact rules to protect the constitutional rights of our people, the first and foremost of which is the right to life itself,” he added.
Puno’s speech drew generous applause, with at least five delegates giving him a standing ovation.
Outside the Manila Hotel, militant groups, along with relatives and friends of desaparecidos (disappeared people), staged a rally supporting the Supreme Court’s initiative to find ways in solving the killings and abductions.
At the summit, the head of the CHR advised the government to check violations of human rights and avoid coming under investigation by the
United Nations Human Rights Council.
Ratify international convention
CHR Chair Lourdes Quisumbing said the Philippines should avoid falling under the jurisdiction of the UN Human Rights Council.
“We should look out for Procedure No. 1503. After examination, the UN Council for Human Rights can put the government under this procedure when it’s deemed to commit consistent patterns of gross violations of human rights,” she said.
The Procedure affords an individual, a group or an NGO the right to submit a complaint to the UN about sustained, systematic and gross violations of human rights in one of the UN Member States.
Quisumbing urged the government to ratify the newly adopted International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.
Karapatan recommended 31 procedural changes in the Rules of Court, including the expansion of the powers of the public prosecutor to include ordering the production of documents and making liberal the modes of discovery of evidence including entry into military camps.
Insurance for witnesses
It suggested that life insurance and money be made available to witnesses in political killings and enforced disappearances. It added that sanctuaries be designated for witnesses or families of victims and that the violation of such sanctuaries be deemed contempt of the Supreme Court.
“There are no witnesses willing to testify for fear that they will become the victim. What happened to one of the witnesses of the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Philip Alston in Mindanao is testament enough that such fears are not unfounded,” De la Paz said.
“She was killed weeks after her testimony was presented to Mr. Alston,” she added.
FIND recommended that the government proscribe an order from a superior or a public authority as a justification for taking part in the commission of enforced disappearance.
Its other recommendations include:
• Require and maintain up to date registers of detainees and prisoners.
• Ensure the right of detainees to notify their families, lawyers and other persons with legitimate interest in their situation.
• Punish government authorities who obstruct and delay investigations and habeas corpus proceedings.
• Preventively suspend persons suspected of committing enforced disappearance.
• Strictly prohibit incommunicado detention and undisclosed places of detention.
• Protect witnesses, lawyers and families of victims against intimidation or ill treatment.
• Provide machinery for victims and their families to seek fair and adequate reparation and redress. With a report from Tina G. Santos