Ratify UN convention against enforced disappearances – kin of victims

Asked why the Aquino government does not want to ratify the law, human rights lawyer Edre Olalia said that probably one of the reasons why the government is hesitant to ratify the convention is that once it does, it would be incumbent upon it to allow visits of special rapporteurs in the country.

By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
Bulatlat.com

MANILA — Families of victims of enforced disappearances are challenging the Aquino government to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 20, 2006.

The said convention defines enforced disappearance as the “arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which places such a person outside the protection of the law.”

“The loss of my son is no longer just about Jonas. It is something bigger and I have seen that…I was brought here because of God’s will to be able to do the little things that I could do to prevent disappearances,” Mrs. Edith Burgos, mother of missing activist Jonas Burgos, said.

Jonas, son of late press freedom fighter Joe Burgos, was abducted seven years ago in a mall in Quezon City.

(Photo courtesy of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers / Bulatlat.com)
(Photo courtesy of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers / Bulatlat.com)

“We’re praying that both our hearts and minds are disposed to do what we could and with expediency. I hope that after we go out, there would be an urge to do it right away to prevent even one more disappearance,” Mrs. Burgos added.

Law vs. enforced disappearances

Though the government has yet to ratify the convention, it signed into law Republic Act No. 10353 or the Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act of 2012.

“We have been calling for the ratification of this convention even before the enactment of the law,” Aya Santos, secretary general of Desaparecidos, said.

Santos, however, said the ratification of the convention does not guarantee that the practice of enforced disappearances, which she described as a government policy, would be stopped. She said that cases of enforced disappearances continued even with the enactment of the said law.

Human rights organization Karapatan said there are 21 victims of enforced disappearance under President Aquino.

Impunity, Santos added, continues as perpetrators of enforced disappearances remain scot-free. In the case of the two missing students of the University of the Philippines Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan, Santos said, the military continues to delay the proceedings of the court case against retired General Jovito Palparan and his men. The military continues to provide justifications why they could not present the soldiers who could serve as witnesses before the court.

“This is not just a denial of justice. It also allows impunity to persist because they are giving state forces the go signal to continue committing enforced disappearances because nobody would be held accountable anyway,” Santos said.

She added: “While we campaign for the ratification (of the Convention), we should also tackle its effectiveness. What ‘teeth’ would it have to hold perpetrators accountable?”

Not a policy?

Police Supt. Erickson Velasquez said the practice of forcible abductions has “never been a policy and would never be a policy” of the state. He added that state security forces have marching orders that silencing enemies would not resolve the problem as the current counterinsurgency program of the government “is not about the elimination [of enemies of the state] but [is about] winning the hearts and minds of the people.”

Edre Olalia, secretary general of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, however, said “No military or police organization will ever admit that is has a policy of abducting and killing people.”

“But the reality is that there are covert operations. The frequency, the pattern and the target of violations would lead to a reasonable conclusion that it is tantamount to a policy,” he added.

Olalia said victims of human rights violations and their families are dying to hear President Aquino to make clear pronouncements on these cases.

“The president is quick to defend EDCA (Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement) and his allies who are facing scandals. But when it comes to torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, there is deafening silence,” he said.

Beyond ratification

Olalia said that, “We pray that beyond the formal legal language, no false hope is added to injury by State security forces who will circumvent and even mock it on the ground like other rights laws; by a judiciary perceived by families to be at times unresponsive and even detached from social realities; and by an administration which has become a party to such violations by default or inaction, if not tacit condonation, or worse, which endangers it by making it logically integral to a State policy or program that practically perpetuates impunity.”

Asked why the Aquino government does not want to ratify the law, human rights lawyer Edre Olalia said that probably one of the reasons why the government is hesitant to ratify the convention is that once it does, it would be incumbent upon it to allow visits of special rapporteurs in the country.

He said that after the 2007 visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Killings Philip Alston, the Philippine government no longer allowed such visits. Alston, in his report, said the counterinsurgency program of the government and its failure to hold perpetrators accountable are the main reasons for the spate of extrajudicial killings in the country.

The convention stipulates that: “If the committee receives reliable information indicating that a State Party is seriously violating the provisions of this Convention, it may, after consultation with the State Party concerned, request one or more of its members to undertake a visit and report back to it without delay.”

“If the Committee receives information which appears to it to contain well-founded indications that enforced disappearance is being practiced on a widespread or systematic basis in the territory under the jurisdiction of a State Party, it may, after seeking from the State Party concerned all relevant information on the situation, urgently bring the matter to the attention of the General Assembly of the United Nations, through the secretary-general of the United Nations,” the convention added.

“Ratification of the UN convention could be another potential tool against impunity and for justice, although it may not be enough to put a stop to enforced disappearances. It may even be used as a showcase to dress up self-serving claims that the government is for the protection and promotion of human rights, a claim that does not conform with reality on the ground. After all, even with the landmark Philippine Desaparecidos law, enforced disappearances still continue and no justice is in sight,” Olalia said.

Hold government accountable

If the UN Convention is ratified, Santos told Bulatlat.com, the Aquino government would surely showcase it as a manifestation of its ‘commitment’ to respect human rights just as what Aquino did when the law criminalizing enforced disappearances was passed.

“But what would expose the government is the continuous human rights violations brought about by the counterinsurgency program,” Santos said.

Santos said they are still pushing for the ratification of the UN convention as it would provide another arena for families of victims of enforced disappearances to hold perpetrators to account, most especially when local judicial processes have already been exhausted.

“Ratifying the convention is recognizing before the international community that enforced disappearance is a criminal offense,” Santos said.

Still searching

Mrs. Burgos, for her part, said families of victims of enforced disappearances have not given up on their search for their loved ones.

“I have been looking for Jonas for seven years now and I have not given up. I am ignorant of a lot of laws and yet I think that I occupy a high morale ground because I am a mother looking for her son. I cannot be faulted for this.”

She said that the demonization and labeling of families of victims as either leftist or communists could, at times, deter them from pursuing their search. But, she added: “As far as I know, we have not given up and we would continue for as long as we live. I would like the search to end while I am still alive and not let my children inherit the torture we are being subjected to by the government’s continued refusal to surface Jonas.”

Mrs. Burgos said, “We all act according to our choices. I choose to smile. It does not mean that my heart is not aching. I choose to forgive but it does not mean that I will not look for justice.” ()

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