Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Plundering and laundering

Here's a Newsbreak article where I get to talk about the many ways Mercie Gutierrez and Agnes Devanadera might, if they wanted to, go after the plunderers roaming pardoned and un-pardoned. I once worked with both when I was still laboring in government (and laboring under the impression that it would matter) In Mercie's case, it was more like I found ways to work around her -- she is essentially, a bureaucrat's bureaucrat. Agnes, on-not-exactly-the-other-hand, is a politician more than anything else and so cannot be expected to be, as the Solicitor-General is mandated to be, a defender of the Republic's interests, and not that of the Republic's incumbent officials.

Of course, there's also something in the same Newsbreak article from the ubiquitous Harry Roque. I must disclose that Harry and I go a long way back.

In 1987, when we were freshmen in law school, Harry for some reason (or maybe for absolutely no acceptable reason) would leave his dirty laundry on the floor of his old Volkswagen Beetle, the same one that all 10 of his male Section C classmates (and occasionaly, the brave unfortunate female classmate) would squeeze into when the class had to go somewhere really important (like Vivian's Tapsilogan on Aurora Boulevard). Every now and then, the pile of unwashed items would include sad old socks and red bikini...briefs. Well, not really, but who knows, given the indistinguishability of Harry's socks from the car's upholstery. Anyway, one day, one of our female classmates -- could it have been Evalyn Ursua? -- sat on the front seat of the Beetle and saw what looked like a dirty sock. She sort of picked it up and it turned out to be...

Let's save that story for next time.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Ermita in New York

Not the district but the politico. The Philippine News Agency (PNA) gave an expectedly governmently-friendly account of a forum that I attended last week, October 24, at the Philippine Consulate in New York, where Executive Secretary Ed Ermita spoke.

(Ermita was in NYC and met with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour as well as with the UN Special Rapporteur for Forced Disappearances Philip Alston. Obviously, he was here to try to blunt the international impact of Alston's report on the Philippine military's involvement in the surge of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances in our country, on the eve of a UN General Assembly session

(I am absolutely sure that Ermita failed; he failed even before he could utter a single word in front of Arbour and Alston. Whatever made him think that he could possibly blunt the impact of killer Jovito Palparan's short-of-a-confession-of-guilt admission that he ordered his soldiers to make legal, above-ground, NDF-aligned activists "disappear"?)

The PNA story says that "Ermita emphasized that the government does not condone or tolerate killings of activists." Which is why I asked him if there is in fact any sane government that will come out and say "it is our policy to kill activists"? The problem, I said, is that Philippine government officials like Ermita and the President think they can get away with mouthing platitudes about adhering to international human rights standards when they go abroad, then when they go back home, openly praise murderers like Palparan.

At the forum, I pointed out how the AFP's impunity for human rights violations has continued unbroken since the Marcos regime. Not one soldier, other than the killers of Ninoy Aquino, has been convicted of torture, forced disappearance or a politically-motivated extrajudicial killing committed during the dictatorship. The only significant case still pending from that period -- the case of Aberca versus Ver involving Philippine Constabulary officers named Rodolfo Aguinaldo, Rolando Abadilla, Danilo Pizarro and Panfilo Lacson -- remains in judicial limbo, with no one in government interested in seeing it through. I left this unsaid: the Arroyo administration and its civilian officialdom are too beholden to the Ebdanes and Esperons around them to do anything about the Palparans still in uniform. The deal between the AFP and Arroyo is clealy impunity in exchange for protection.

(And what about Ermita? A veteran reporter once recalled to me, in an offhand remark that may or may not be the complete truth about Ermita's role during the Marcos dictatorship, that after Martial Law was declared, the young Major Ermita was assigned to regularly go to the Bulletin editorial offices the evening before, to make sure that only what Imelda considered "the true, the good and the beautiful" would make it as news the following morning.)

So I challenged Ermita to go beyond those platitudes. He pretended he didn't understand that it was less about punishing violators after-the-fact than abetting their abuses to begin with. He just went on about how the "rule of law" requires proof before human rights violators can be charged in court, while refusing to discus why the same rule doesn't seem to apply to Palparan et al. He then did the predictable challenge to victims and families in standard speeches like this, come forward and help resolve these cases instead of "magbatuhan tayo" -- which disingenuously implies that victims and the State are equals who can throw the same size of rocks at each other and erroneously suggests that victims have the same burden as the government to investigate these violations. Victims or their families, he said, should present "papers" (Papers? Like a signed order from General Esperon printed on AFP stationery ordering the abduction of Jonas Burgos?).

To Ermita's surprise, a woman stood up from the audience, asked why, more than 6 months after they were ordered by the Court of Appeals to comply, the AFP still refused to submit an intelligence report connected with the Burgos case. The woman said she was the younger sister of Jonas' mother. Ermita then did his "I am a friend of the Burgos family" shtick and narrated how he personally intervened in the case because a brother of the victim is his inaanak. That prompted another woman to later stand up and ask him: so if you couldn't even compel the AFP to obey the court in a case involving people you claim to be "close" to, what about those who don't even know you at all?

Call my office, Ermita then says to her as well as to the next person who complained that she, too, had been tainted by people like Bert Gonzalez with the CPP-NPA-NDF-paintbrush. (But let me say this about the Maoists and their own cases of murder, torture and ideological intolerance, well-documented here: Filipino Maoists should not conflate the NDF's need to salvage a failed revolution with the cause of defending human rights, whether of NDF-aligned activists not personally taking up arms against the State or of Filipinos who simply get caught in the crossfire of Maoist dogma and military madness.)

After the forum, I spoke to Commission on Human Rights Chair Puring Quisumbing, who was part of the government delegation but kept stressing her independence from Malacanang (if she protests too much, it might be because her daughter, Coco, works for Malacanang and is Ermita's assistant on human rights issues). I told Chair Quisumbing that, really, the solution is to cleanse the AFP of its putrid, human rights-abusive ranks, to do it institutionally and decisively, start, perhaps by starting at the Philippine Military Academy, because prosecuting one or two officers in court will not do anything to change their culture of impunity.

It was raining outside when I left the consulate. On Fifth Avenue, in front of the consulate building, a handful of umbrella-holding activists from NDF-aligned, NY-based organizations were chanting something. It was a soft chant that sounded like "Free Jonas Burgos." In New York, we hear things, too.

(UPDATE: Last Friday and as reported in today's news reports, Philip Alston appeared before the UN General Assembly and, among other findings involving other States, discussed the outcome of his Philippine investigation. Alston acknowledged Ermita's presence during the UN GA session, and Ermita himself reiterated the government's claim that allowing Alston to investigate showed the country’s “good citizenship in the international human rights system.”

(But that kind of statement precisely demonstrates what I meant above about people like Ermita mouthing platitudes about human rights abroad, then publicly endorsing human rights violators at home. The hypocrisy of it all is that these platitudes aren't even for the consumption of Filipinos back home, but for the satisfaction of Western human rights monitors like Alston. Philip Alston was my teacher in a human rights course at NYU a few years ago; he had that wry, Australian sense of humor in class, the kind that now might be saying: "Ed Ermita, who do you think you're fooling -- me or your own people?").