From 2004-2010, the Philippines witnessed one of the worst waves of human rights violations in its history. Hundreds of activists were killed or abducted. Hundreds more were arrested and faced with trumped-up charges. The magnitude of the abuses caught the attention of the international community. The issue also further isolated the regime of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The main suspects in the killings and disappearances were state security forces.
There were numerous embassy cables on the US position regarding extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. My own estimate is that there were more than 40 cables that referenced extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. These cables ranged from scenesetters for visiting US officials, to actual reports on the actions taken by the US embassy and the Philippine government on EJK’s.
But while there were strong statements of concern to address the killings of activists and journalists, the US continued to provide economic and military aid to the Arroyo government. While the US said “there’s more that needs to be done”, the US also noted progress in the human rights situation as well as Arroyo’s “seriousness” in addressing the problem.
The Philippines remains the biggest recipient of military aid in this region of Asia, receiving some $30 million annually in Foreign Military Financing, education and training as well as Excess Defense Articles. Human rights issues in the country must be taken in the context of US support for Philippine security forces. With the nationwide phenomenon of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, a feat that can only be accomplished by state security forces, there is a valid perception that US tax dollars were funding human rights abuses committed by the AFP.
The US seemed content with how the Arroyo government explained and addressed the issue of extrajudicial killings. The US embassy did not seem perturbed by the lies peddled by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Philippine National Police, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Department of National Defense and the Executive Secretary when asked of the causes of these killings. ( See US gov’t inquired about PH efforts vs. extrajudicial killings — WikiLeaks cable)
Here’s how Executive Secretary Ermita explained the killings in one of the cables dated April 20, 2007:
“In discussing unlawful killings of leftist activists, Ermita provided a detailed historical account of the communist insurgency. He argued that the killings did not take place in a vacuum but instead occur in the context of the Philippines’ war against the terrorist Communist insurgency. He underscored that the National (sic) People’s Army (NPA), the armed component of the Communist Party of the Philippines, routinely ambushes and kills members of the AFP. “There is a war going on,” he emphasized.”
Here, Ermita actually affirms our long-held view that the killings occur in the context of the Philippine government’s counter-insurgency program, which in this case is Oplan Bantay Laya. However, Ermita is saying is that while the killings occur in the context of the counter-insurgency program, whose main implementor is the AFP, the military cannot be blamed for the EJK’s.
The US was in fact supportive of Oplan Bantay Laya. “While total victory over the CPP/NPA in the foreseeable future remains unlikely, the new campaign could over the next couple of years contribute to improvements on the ground,” Kenney said in one cable. (Ref ID 06MANILA2777).
Another official, DND Usec Ric Blancaflor commented that killings have resulted from the “intensification of anti-insurgency and anti-terrorist drives.”
The same official even tried to explain and justify the targeting of activists from partylist groups. “Blancaflor added that many within the AFP believe the NPA has taken advantage of the initiative to include Communist elements in the political process,” the cable said.
The DFA meanwhile sought to contain the international impact of the killings. “Department of Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary for the Americas Rey Carandang told the Staffdel that the unlawful killing issue had been greatly exaggerated. “We are not in a state of war,” he claimed”.
The US seemed to take everything at face value, even the discredited line that the killings were the result of an internal purge by the New People’s Army. This view has been discredited by the government’s own Melo Commission as well as the report of UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings Philip Alston. There was in fact no evidence produced to support this view, except for an alleged document called “Oplan Bushfire” produced by the AFP itself, allegedly taken from a raid against the NPA.
In cable dated February 9, 2007 (07MANILA458) entitled PROGRESS AGAINST POLITICAL KILLINGS, the PNP’s General Avelino Razon “confirmed suspicions that the Luzon killings may be linked to the then-presence of controversial Major General Jovito Palparan, nicknamed “the Butcher” by activists, although he noted that “there was little or no hard evidence directly linking Palparan or units under his command to such killings”. Truth is, TF Usig never really investigated Palparan. The PNP claimed that Palparan was not under PNP jurisdiction. (Meanwhile, the AFP said that they won’t be investigating Palparan for EJK’s because that’s the PNP’s job).
Perhaps the best summary of the US position on EJK appears in a scenesetter for US Congressman Steve Chabot. In this February 15 2007 cable signed by Kristie Kenney, the US wanted to send the message that the Philippines needs to “control the problem” of EJK’s.
“We press the government at every opportunity to resolve these killings, and I have discussed them with President Arroyo and key members of her cabinet, as well as the Armed Forces Chief of Staff and the Chief of the Philippine National Police. They all tell me they are as appalled as we are, but we remain insistent that they must get control of this problem,” Kenney said.
Here the issue was not really achieving justice for the victims or correcting the wrongs done by the AFP. The issue was the containment of a problem: avoiding international fall-out, the further degeneration of the AFP and the further complications in US involvement in Philippine counter-insurgency efforts.
In a scenesetter for visiting General Bryan Brown (Ref ID 07MANILA977), Kenney’s concern on EJK’s focused on “the need to take decisive action to resolve the issue of unlawful killings, which threaten to tarnish the impressive victories the AFP is winning in the field”.
In March 16, 2007 cable (07MANILA863) issued by Kenney, visiting US State Department official Scot Marciel warned the Philippine government that that unresolved, unlawful killings have the potential to become “a cloud in the relationship” between the two countries.
In the other cables, the US will claim to have helped resolve the issue of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses by providing training, funding and capacity-building for Philippine institutions. The US also claims that its Philippine Defense Reform and other actions by the Joint US Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG) also have positive effects on the AFP.
A new counter-insurgency program has been put in place, one that takes its cue from the US counter-insurgency guide (COIN) of 2009. The new plan combines the “hard” and “soft” approaches to insurgency. Despite the new plan, human rights violations still persist. Under the Aquino administration, human rights groups have documented 50 cases of extrajudicial killings. Meanwhile, convictions of perptrators from the past regime have been dismally low. ###