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February 01, 2008

ABA ROLI Pioneers Effort to Curb Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines

February 2008 

The ABA Rule of Law Initiative’s (ABA ROLI) portfolio of post-conflict and human rights programs continues to expand in new directions, most recently in the Philippines.  The United States Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) has selected ABA ROLI to spearhead a new program to combat the occurrences of political assassinations and kidnappings, commonly known as “extrajudicial killings,” in the Philippines. This program is substantially different than others the Initiative has undertaken in the country. ABA ROLI will host five summits in the regions where most of the political killings occur to discuss uses of the Writ of Amparo, and will also train prosecutors in basic crime scene preservation. In addition, every agency and institution, government or NGO, attending the symposia will create an action plan for how to respond to a report of a suspicious disappearance.


There has been an unfortunate surge in the number of political activists, labor leaders and others who have disappeared or been killed in the Philippines. Filipino citizens, journalists, prosecutors and other civil society organizations firmly believe that the circumstances surrounding the deaths and disappearances point toward the involvement of a government agent, notably the national police or military. These cases pose a direct threat to the democratic gains made by the Philippines in the decades since their revolution.


The development of the ABA ROLI’s new program, titled “Curbing Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines,” was inspired by a 2007 national symposium in Manila convened by Chief Justice Reynato Puno. One of the direct results of the conference was the adoption by the Supreme Court of the Writ of Amparo (Recursode Amparo), a legal mechanism to help victims of extrajudicial killings or disappearances. Based on similar writs in Latin American countries, the Writ of Amparo, when granted, requires a government agency, such as the police or the military, to conduct due diligence to ensure that a missing person is not in their custody.  General denials are forbidden, and the responding agency must detail what steps it took to search for the person. 


Because the Writ of Amparo is still an imperfect legal vehicle—citizens do not understand its limitations or that issuance of the writ marks the beginning of a case, not the end—ABA ROLI will be hosting five regional summits to increase understanding of the legal tool.  By holding the symposia in the regions where the problem is most acute, speakers can tailor their messages to address the unique challenges facing the citizens of a particular region, and more people who actively work in the field will be able to attend. Also, the heightened media attention given the forums by local press will help expose the problem to an even wider audience.


Prior to the symposia, ABA ROLI will bring a forensics expert to train an extrajudicial killings task force on basic crime scene preservation techniques and how to use physical evidence more effectively.  In turn, those taskforce members will teach the audiences at the regional summits about what they can do to help prosecutors bring stronger cases to trial.  In addition, all entities attending the summits will develop internal action plans for responding to killings or disappearance. Those plans will be linked by an external action plan coordinating communications among the various groups.  Proper execution of the action plans should, for example, allow first responders to quickly spread information about a missing person and mobilize hundreds of people to begin probing the disappearance.


This program, which stands out because of the wide ensemble of partners it will involve, has already obtained tremendous support. The Supreme Court of the Philippines has agreed to co-sponsor the regional summits, as has the Alternative Law Group, an umbrella organization of civil rights lawyers and organizations. One of the Philippines’ most prestigious universities, Ateneo de Davao, will also lend its name and intellectual assets to the program.