According to research compiled by Mexico’s Universidad de las Americas Puebla (UDLAP), the Philippines has the worst record of anywhere on Earth for allowing its criminals to go unpunished. And while the accuracy of that finding is almost impossible to verify – the report is a complete nightmare to go through in terms of its construction, its methodology and its historical data, drawing on different years for different countries – the fact remains, the Philippines has a wretched record where impunity is concerned.
That said, there’s nothing in this index – there’s the odd anecdote but no firm data – to show that impunity is any worse in the Philippines today than it has been in the past. More specifically, there are no facts in UDLAP’s 2017 Global Impunity Index (GII) that can be construed to show that the current administration of President Rodrigo Duterte has somehow exacerbated an already prevalent problem.
Certainly, the past two administrations – those of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and more recently, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino – can shoulder much of the blame for the Philippines’ deplorable record of bringing criminals to justice. But the trail of impunity goes back well before them.
Moreover, UNDLAP is not the first research provider to point out the Philippines’ shortcomings where inadequate or a complete lack of justice is concerned – NGOs including, Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have all regularly cited the Philippines as a major impunity offender, particularly where it references media workers.
And, we have to agree with them. They’re not picking on the Philippines – their data are verifiable. And though they’ve never gone so far as to claim it’s the worst country in the world, the CPJ came close in 2015 when it declared the Philippines to be the most dangerous place on Earth for journalists after the bloody war zones of Iraq and Syria.
Last year the International Federation of Journalists – the world’s largest federation of journalists’ trade unions – moved the archipelago up a notch to second place; after Iraq and ahead of Syria. The point is then, the Philippines has form where lack of justice is concerned.
The country’s ranking on the 2017 GII, however, is actually based on 2012-2014 statistics compiled in 2015, the last year of Aquino’s presidency and a year before Duterte assumed office. In short, impunity in the Philippines is a legacy problem – and a serious one that’s been allowed to go unchecked even since the post-martial-law years when Aquino’s mother, Corazon, sat in the presidential palace of Malacañang.
Indeed, it was during her term that 13 farmers protesting at the country’s slow pace of agrarian reform were slain by government troops in Mendiola Street in San Miguel, Manila. These were extrajudicial killings (EJKs) by the United Nations definition. Furthermore, that was 30 years ago and still no one’s been brought to justice.
It’s the same story with the 12 farmers and two children killed on the Aquino family’s sugar plantation at Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac province at the end of 2004 – just five months after Arroyo started her second presidential term. They were killed by soldiers and police officers sent to disperse a demonstration by striking farm workers. Again, they fit the UN definition of EJKs.
Thirteen years on and no one’s still been charged; and they’re unlikely to be. In 2010 at the start of Benigno Aquino’s presidency, the Ombudsman dismissed all the cases against members of the military and the police who’d been implicated in the killings. They were given full indemnity from prosecution.
Finally, towards the end of Arroyo’s tenure, on 23 November 2009 – a date that leaves an indelible mark on the pages of Philippine history for the sheer brutality of that day – 58 people, among them 32 media workers, were massacred allegedly by the private army of a powerful political clan at a barangay in Ampatuan, Maguindanao on the southern island of Mindanao.
Some 198 suspects were variously charged with participating in what remains the worst election violence in Philippine history and the deadliest-ever attack on the press anywhere. Seeing the disarray of the state’s effort to bring those responsible to justice, in 2010 Senator Joker Arroyo said that for the courts to handle nearly 200 defendants and 300 witnesses, would take 200 years of trial time. Joker wasn’t joking. Sluggish investigations, aided and abetted by an incompetent justice system, has resulted in not a single conviction.
These three cases – and they’re not isolated ones – have impacted over time to ensure that the Philippines retains its low ranking in any survey on impunity. The massacres of Mendiola Street, Hacienda Luisita and Maguindanao aren’t written off in future surveys – countries don’t start with a clean sheet each year – they’re carried forward like a deficit on a balance sheet to provide a running report. And rightfully so; those responsible still enjoy impunity while the families of their victims seek a mirage of justice that grows fainter with every passing year.
So certainly, the Philippines has earned its place of high notoriety in the Hall of Shame – it just didn’t earn it since Duterte came to power. He’s not the author of the unwritten impunity charter that seems to exist in the Philippines; he inherited it just after he took his oath of office on 30 June 2016.
Naturally, this background is absent from reports in anti-Duterte blogs that would like to give him the sole credit for the Philippine ranking in the 2017 GII. The fact is though, as far as that index is concerned Duterte wasn’t in a position to make a contribution even if he’d wanted to.
Responding to the findings, Presidential Spokesperson, Ernesto Abella, release a statement – presumably to head-off any criticism of the administration. In it he said this: “Previous governments faced these same problems but it is only under this administration that crime and terrorism are being decisively addressed”. We’d agree with that – however, what isn’t being addressed with the same energy is bringing the criminals to trial. And that’s actually what’s at issue here.
The endless charges of EJKs allegedly committed by Duterte’s lawmen at his instruction during his anti-drugs war – charges made by human-rights organisations and Left/Liberal groups; all of whom oppose him – have no context here, fallacious though so far they’ve shown to be.
In fact, the only reference in the report that’s even remotely connected to the present is a fairly anodyne one and it’s this: ”The Philippines is going through one of its most critical moments, due to the increase of violence related with organized crime and increased terrorist activities from local gangs linked to the Islamic State”.
The 2017 GII looks at just 69 of the United Nations 193 member states; so the scale of the survey is limited to around one third of the UN’s membership. Furthermore, its Asia reach is limited to India, Japan, Mongolia, South Korea, and the Philippines which is the only state in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations represented. Thus, in a regional context, the index provides little to compare and contrast.
In fairness, the report’s authors are upfront about the GII’s deficiencies in terms of timely data: Here’s what they said in its introduction: “The main challenge when preparing this edition was the lack of information altogether or the lack of updated information that countries report to the UNODC [the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] on the performance of their security and justice systems”.
Difficult and unworkable as we find this index, there’s one particular item that’s worth highlighting. That’s the Philippines’ score for the structure of its judicial system – the courts, laws, legal processes and procedures that are supposed to facilitate efficient justice. On the 2017 GII, the Philippines scores a near-perfect bad score of 99.07 out of 100 for those structures.
We’re sure that won’t come as any major shock to most people in the Philippines who regard the country’s courts and legal framework – and the legal fraternity/sorority that operate within them – as a standing national joke. The point is though; it’s this shoddy apparatus which is in large part responsible for the Philippines’ abysmal performance in bringing criminals to justice and in preventing the families of their victims from getting closure.
Justice secretaries, chief justices of the supreme court and ombudsmen have presided over a failed and broken justice system for as long as anyone cares to think. Staggeringly bureaucratic and unwieldy it’s the finest example of structural inadequacy of any part of government. It’s so bad in fact that the judicial branch of government makes the bumbling legislative branch look like a slick well-oiled machine.
From start to finish, systemic failure runs through it like the letters in a stick of seaside rock. It suffers from bureaucratic overload, jungles of red tape, pedantic processing, case backlogs that look like Manila traffic at crush hour, arcane scheduling practices – and all that’s before we get down to good old corruption, pay-for-delay, political favours and all the rest of it.
The UN defines impunity as: “the impossibility, de jure or de facto, of bringing the perpetrators of violations to account – whether in criminal, civil, administrative or disciplinary proceedings – since they are not subject to any inquiry that might lead to their being accused, arrested, tried and, if found guilty, sentenced to appropriate penalties, and to making reparations to their victims”.
Lamentably, many in the Philippine have a first-hand understanding of that – and, what it feels like. What’s even sadder though is that there’s little to indicate any of this will change; though Abella in his statement did add: “We must therefore strengthen the pillars of the criminal justice system, which include the community, law enforcement, prosecution, the courts and corrections”.
But if that doesn’t happen, this is what we can expect. Politically appointed judges and officers of the courts will continue to shield their political benefactors; financial inducements will continue to be part of the currency of justice; stubbornly arrogant lawyers and indolent court administrators will continue to choke the system; and lack of real political will to dismantle a Frankenstein will ensure that tomorrow’s criminals will remain tomorrow’s free men.