Friday, May 26, 2006

Numb and Numb-er

By Raul Pangalangan
First posted 01:37am (Mla time) May 26, 2006

BOTH Amnesty International and Commission on Human Rights Chair Purificacion Quisumbing are correct. It is not enough for the Philippine government to just say: No, our guys didn’t kill all those communists, journalists and oppositionists. It is not enough for them to say: Go ahead, punk, prove it in court. How can the victims’ families run after the suspects, unless the police find and arrest them first?

MalacaƱang’s arguments actually resemble the typical defense resorted to by dictatorships of two decades ago against “enforced disappearances” -- what Latin Americans called the “desaparecidos.” Anti-government activists would be abducted and tortured, and the evidence forever erased by the simple cruel expedient of executing the prisoner and hiding the corpse (hence, the Filipino term, “salvaging” -- I suppose, referring to the macabre task of unearthing the corpses).

The activists “were disappeared,” to use jargon, precisely so that the government -- when the accusing finger points its way—can simply shrug its shoulders. Indeed, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez’s quip -- “You have to be sure what is the reason -- a drinking spree or because of a woman…” -- was already a stock response by many governments even then.

Yet, in 1989, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights actually held Honduras responsible for the disappearance of a student activist, Manfredo Velasquez Rodriguez, at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. The court relied on exactly the same logic used by Amnesty and Quisumbing: that the abduction (in Honduras) -- and the killings (in the Philippines) -- fit a historical pattern.

The Court’s language was uncanny. “Those disappearances followed a similar pattern, beginning with the kidnapping of the victims by force, often in broad daylight and in public places, by armed men in civilian clothes and disguises, who acted with apparent impunity … It was public and notorious knowledge … that the kidnappings were carried out by military personnel or the police, or persons acting under their orders....The disappearances were carried out in a systematic manner [especially considering that the] victims were usually persons whom Honduran officials considered dangerous to State security.”

The court said that the state’s obligation under the human rights covenants is not just “to respect” human rights but “to ensure [these rights] to all individuals within its territory….” That creates the duty “to organize the governmental apparatus … so that they are capable of juridically ensuring the free and full enjoyment of human rights.”

Significantly, the court contrasted the evidentiary threshold in state responsibility versus that in individual liability. “[T]he violation can be established even if the identity of the individual perpetrator is unknown. What is decisive is whether a [human rights] violation … has occurred with the support or the acquiescence of the government, or whether the State has allowed the act to take place without taking measures to prevent it or to punish those responsible.”

Stated plainly, the charge was not that the government killed Manfredo but that it failed to give him justice. The blame thus cast, the “Who, me?” defense suddenly collapses.

What bothers me about the cold-blooded murder of Fernando “Dong” Batul, fierce critic of local politicos, radio broadcaster and former Puerto Princesa City vice mayor, is the privatization of terror and the localization of fear.

Today, even political slaughter has been devolved to private hit men and decentralized to provincial goons. Let the loyal warlords in the provinces do what they must, and find the hoodlums who meet their price. This dovetails MalacaƱang’s style of deciding policy on the basis of the latest behest by either a “padrino,” or political patron, or which momentary need, if answered, will sway the poll surveys.

But what bothers me even more is the lack of outrage, of indignation. Filipinos were up in arms over the spoon-and-fork incident at a Canadian school. (I saw a film clip of that boy -- he had his thumb close to the base of his spoon, an absolute no-no if you ask the Filipino etiquette police!) Many Filipino Catholics were furious at “The Da Vinci Code.” (I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but because of you, zealous objectors, I now promise to do both!) We love to speak of the human rights revolution that was Edsa People Power I, yet we remain unmoved by grieving mothers, wives and children we see almost regularly in the headlines.

So it has worked, the strategy of decimating the Philippine Left. Isolate them, remind people of their links to armed strife and of their own killing fields. Cut them down one by one, push them back underground, and then accuse them of having turned their back on peace.

So it has worked, the strategy of going after individual critics, politically significant to attract media attention and project fear, but not too high up, like Ninoy Aquino, lest it spark the next conflagration. It’s “kill one, scare 1,000.”

So it has worked, the strategy of detaching politics from life. They who are in power tell us to avoid all talk about power: Leave it to us, and just stick to workaday concerns. This triggers a cycle: politics is drained of substance and is taken over by “trapos” [traditional politicians]. In their hands, communal politics is then robbed of its soul, we all shun it even more, and the trapos have the field all to themselves.

Clever. Far too clever. Heartless schemers, their sharp minds bereft of conscience. To defeat them, we must be shrewd before we can be compassionate. That is our curse: that to win, we risk becoming like the enemy.

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