MAC: Mines and Communities

Arroyo vows to end political deaths in the Philippines

Published by MAC on 2006-08-13

Arroyo vows to end political deaths in the Philippines

By Donald Greenlees, International Herald Tribune

Published: 13th August 2006

CEBU CITY, Philippines - Confronting an outcry from human rights activists over hundreds of unsolved politically motivated murders and kidnappings, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines said that she would appoint a retired Supreme Court judge to investigate the crimes and grant him far-reaching powers.

"He would have all the powers that can emanate from the president," Arroyo said in an extensive interview here Friday. "And, if he so agrees, we will submit to Congress a bill to give him more powers than the president" would be able "to give him."

Human rights groups and political opposition figures in the Philippines estimate that more than 700 political activists, church workers, union organizers and journalists have been murdered since 2001, the year Arroyo took office. The vast majority of these crimes remain unsolved. Human rights groups say extra-judicial killings and kidnappings are an integral part of military efforts to quash political dissent and several rebellions in the provinces, particularly by the communist New People's Army.

Arroyo tried to disarm critics in a July 24 state of the nation speech by condemning the killings "in the harshest possible terms." But her response to date has been dismissed as inadequate and ad hoc; she set up a police task force and ordered investigators to solve 10 crimes in 10 weeks.

The issue of political violence is gaining increasing international attention and has taken on special significance as Arroyo tries to turn around the image of the Philippines as a country beset by security problems. Her administration is trying to attract foreign investors willing to develop the country's extensive natural resources, much of it in regions that have long been afflicted by conflict.

In an interview while attending a conference of business leaders from Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum economies, Arroyo said she had given her police and military chiefs a clear message over the killings: "I want them solved. I want them stopped.

"We have been offering rewards, we have been offering witness protection and so I hope" that witnesses will come forward, she said. "We are strong believers in human rights in the Philippines."

But she did not reveal the precise powers that would be given to the judge she intended to appoint to carry out the investigation into the killings or who she had approached to take on the job. The appointment of a former judge, if granted sufficient powers of investigation, could give some focus and momentum to the task of solving and preventing politically motivated killings.

Arroyo, however, has to walk a fine line between ensuring justice is done and retaining the support of a military known for its adventurism. In February, Arroyo declared a weeklong state of emergency because of an alleged coup plot by leftist sympathizers in the military. Since taking office, Arroyo has rotated eight generals through the position of armed forces chief of staff.

In the interview, Arroyo praised the quality of her military commanders who, at her instructions, have been waging an intensified campaign against Communist insurgents in recent times. She also pointed to claims that "many of those killings are being attributed in fact to the communists themselves."

Amid suspicions that the security forces are to blame for extra-judicial killings, Amnesty International and other rights groups say Arroyo needs to take concrete steps to protect witnesses and ensure an end to the violence.

"Many witnesses to political killings - even close relatives of the victims - are simply too frightened to come forward," said Tim Parritt, deputy director of Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific program in a statement last month. "If the government wants witnesses to testify, it must strengthen implementation of witness protection laws. Death threats, other intimidation of witnesses and fear of reprisal are major problems contributing to repeated failures by police or prosecutors to file charges, or to trials failing to lead to the conviction of the guilty."

The debate over political violence, and the international interest it is generating, is an unwelcome distraction for Arroyo as she tries to revive private sector, particularly foreign, investment. She said that some miners, including the giant mining company Anglo-American, are stepping up plans to exploit the country's large mineral resources, which include nickel and gold. The Supreme Court has ruled that foreign investors can own 100 percent of mining projects.

Arroyo said she met executives from Anglo-American, accompanied by the British ambassador to the Philippines, to discuss Thursday a project in Mindanao, a region that has been torn by Islamic insurgency and banditry. The government is currently negotiating with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front on a lasting peace to a three- decade-old conflict.

She said these issues were not holding back the prospects for what would be a "major source of investments" in the country.

"Even in areas where the community is wary of mining investments the investors have been quite safe," she said.

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