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Has Aquino Cut a Faustian Bargain on Human Rights?

July 24, 1988|Sheila S. Coronel | Sheila S. Coronel is a reporter and columnist for the Manila Chronicle.

MANILA — A wave of assassinations of human-rights lawyers and political dissenters has raised fresh doubts about the Philippine government's ability to protect citizens and keep militant right-wing forces under control.

In the span of about two summer weeks, three human-rights lawyers were shot dead in their homes by armed men believed to be part of military-sponsored anti-communist vigilante groups.

On June 30, Nemesio Prudente, a prominent leftist academic, was ambushed in the middle of rush-hour Manila traffic by men wielding grenade-launchers and automatic rifles. Though Prudente, a friend of President Corazon Aquino, survived his second ambush in seven months, three of his bodyguards died.

Initial investigations by a civilian agency indicate that policemen and Manila vigilantes may have been responsible. Then, two days after the ambush, Prudente's lawyer was killed near his home in a busy Manila street, just a mile away from the presidential palace.

In the aftermath, groups and individuals from a broad spectrum of views urged Aquino to act decisively to curb these assaults. But except for a terse statement condemning the Prudente ambush and an order calling for its immediate investigation, Aquino has frustrated both critics and supporters by refusing to take stronger action.

Through the months, a seeming paralysis in the face of escalating right-wing terror has eroded the president's once-substantial support from the human-rights community, both in the Philippines and abroad. Aquino has been criticized by local and international human-rights organizations for endorsing, yet failing to control, military-supported vigilantes. Amnesty International and the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Human Rights, for example, have documented numerous killings and other abuses committed by vigilante groups.

But Aquino has repeatedly refused to act on suggestions--even from the Philippine Senate--that she dismantle these groups or put them under tighter rein. Instead, she has endorsed the armed forces' position that vigilantes perform an essential counterinsurgency role.

Human rights are no longer the centerpiece of government policy, despite repeated assurances that the government remains committed to them. Philippine citizens remember how, in 1986, Aquino campaigned for the presidency against strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos; she was the widow of a man slain by soldiers and therefore a victim, like many others, of military abuse. Human rights were the foundation of her campaign platform.

Immediately after the popular uprising that put her in power, Aquino released all political prisoners, repealed Marcos' most repressive decrees and set up a commission to look into military and paramilitary rights abuses. Human-rights lawyers, many of them harassed and persecuted by the Marcos regime, played crucial and visible roles in the new government.

But as the military reasserted power, it also began to define the government's human-rights agenda. From the early months of the Aquino administration, officers angrily and noisily protested investigations of military excesses. Many of these officers took part in a series of coups d'etat that rocked the government in the first two years of its existence.

As the months passed, human-rights investigations were slowed down, apparently in an effort to appease the brass and the barracks. Since then, the Human Rights Commission, originally envisioned as an activist body that would pursue abusive military and militiamen, has lapsed into quiet and obscurity. It has also been forced to divert its efforts by investigating military complaints about rebel abuses. So far, the commission has not prosecuted a single case of military abuse. Meanwhile, most of the human-rights lawyers in government have been forced to resign in the series of reorganizations that inevitably followed each attempted coup.

Aquino now has the backing of all but the most extremist fringe of the armed forces. While the military is a constituency deemed vital to her government's stability, this support has also cost her the backing of the human-rights community. Some critics say the president has made a Faustian bargain with the military: She has traded the soul of her government--human-rights commitments--in exchange for its continued life.

The corpses left by right-wing death squads in the city's streets could be grisly symbols of this Faustian deal. These recent killings raise doubts about whether, in the long term, Aquino can keep an overzealous military under control. The government's less-ardent support for human rights seems to have emboldened armed groups to launch ever-more brazen attacks. These groups operate in the shadows of secrecy and at the fringes of the law. In some cases, like the Prudente ambush, they also involve soldiers or policemen.

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