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 andhuman rights programs continues to expand in new directions, most recently inthe Philippines.  The United States Department of State’s Bureau ofDemocracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) has selected ABA ROLI to spearhead anew program to combat the occurrences of political assassinations andkidnappings, commonly known as “extrajudicial killings,” in the Philippines.This program is substantially different than others the Initiative hasundertaken in the country. ABA ROLI will host five summits in the regions wheremost 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 willcreate an action plan for how to respond to a report of a suspiciousdisappearance.

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 societyorganizations firmly believe that the circumstances surrounding the deaths anddisappearances point toward the involvement of a government agent, notablythe national police or military. These cases pose a direct threat to thedemocratic gains made by the Philippines in the decades since their revolution.

The development of the ABA ROLI’s new program, titled “Curbing ExtrajudicialKillings 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 conferencewas the adoption by the Supreme Court of the Writ of Amparo (Recursode Amparo), a legal mechanism to help victims of extrajudicial killings ordisappearances. Based on similar writs in Latin American countries, the Writof Amparo, when granted, requires a government agency, such as the policeor the military, to conduct due diligence to ensure that a missing person isnot in their custody.  General denials are forbidden, and the respondingagency must detail what steps it took to search for the person. 

Because the Writ of Amparo is still an imperfect legalvehicle—citizens do not understand its limitations or that issuance of the writmarks the beginning of a case, not the end—ABA ROLI will be hosting fiveregional summits to increase understanding of the legal tool.  By holdingthe symposia in the regions where the problem is most acute, speakers cantailor their messages to address the unique challenges facing the citizens of aparticular region, and more people who actively work in the field will be ableto attend. Also, the heightened media attention given the forums by local presswill help expose the problem to an even wider audience.

Prior to the symposia, ABA ROLI will bring a forensics expert to train anextrajudicial killings task force on basic crime scene preservation techniquesand how to use physical evidence more effectively.  In turn, those taskforce members will teach the audiences at the regional summits about what theycan do to help prosecutors bring stronger cases to trial.  In addition,all entities attending the summits will develop internal action plans forresponding to killings or disappearance. Those plans will be linked by anexternal action plan coordinating communications among the variousgroups.  Proper execution of the action plans should, for example, allowfirst responders to quickly spread information about a missing person andmobilize hundreds of people to begin probing the disappearance.

This program, which stands out because of the wide ensembleof partners it will involve, has already obtained tremendous support. TheSupreme Court of the Philippines has agreed to co-sponsor the regional summits,as has the Alternative Law Group, an umbrella organization of civil rightslawyers and organizations. One of the Philippines’ most prestigiousuniversities, Ateneo de Davao, will also lend its name and intellectual assetsto the program.