Home News Philippines Philippines: Landmark Law Criminalizes Enforced Disappearances 

Philippines: Landmark Law Criminalizes Enforced Disappearances 

E-mail Print PDF

Download The Philippines’ Congress recently passed the Involuntary Disappearance Act – the first statute in Asia which criminalizes enforced disappearances.

Nearly two thousand people have been missing since 1971 and in most of these cases, government forces are allegedly responsible.

Relatives of enforced disappearance victims are hopeful the new bill will bring justice for their families.

Joyce Pañares has more from Manila.

It’s been a painful five years for Lorena Santos.

“I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I went to see a psychiatrist. It is very painful for me. My father and I were very close."

Lorena’s father, Leo Velasco, was a consultant for the political arm of the Philippines’ Communist Party that was engaged in a peace deal with the government.

In 2007, he was taken by men wearing jackets with the acronym CIDG written on them – a clear indication that they belonged to a group with links to the Philippine National Police.

"It was very hard for me because I thought he might  just be somewhere in a detention centre and that eventually. I'd be able to find him. Days went by weeks then months and then years – it pains me to think that it's been such a long time."

Velasco then became a statistic – one of the nearly 2,000 cases of enforced disappearances in the Philippines.

Half of them are still missing and around 200 have been found dead.

The new Involuntary Disappearance Act makes a distinction between normal kidnappings and abductions carried out by government security forces. Government officials could face a life sentence if convicted of the offence.

The law also prohibits secret detention facilities.

Human Rights Watch spokesperson Caloy Conde welcomes the new law.

"We view this law as instrumental in ending impunity in the Philippines. This is a very positive development and we think that given proper enforcement this law will address the long running and deep seated problems of enforced disappearances in the Philippines that go way back to the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos."

The government’s deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte, says that signing the law has a personal meaning for President Benigno Aquino.

"The President is of the mind that it is not a normal offense. It is not a secret that the President and his family have been victims of human rights violations. In a sense it is personal."

Aquino’s father, the then Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., was illegally arrested and detained by state agents during the dictatorship of the late President Ferdinand Marcos.

During that period, enforced disappearance were rampant, targeting activists and suspected communist rebels and supporters.

And the abduction continued even after the end of President Marcos. According to the Philippine human rights group Karapatan, there have been more than 1,000 cases since then.

The new law considers enforced disappearances as a continuing crime.

But there's no case yet filed before the Supreme Court to determine whether the law can be used for previous cases, as Valte explains....

"As a general rule the constitution prohibits punishing an act retrospectively but what is novel about the anti-enforced disappearance Act is that it also makes enforced disappearances a continuing offense. It makes apprehension easier because according to the law you are still committing the crime. But whether you could argue that because the victims are still missing, the law should also apply to cases of alleged enforced disappearances that happened before the law was passed, is a legal question that can only be settled by the Supreme Court."

The law became the first statute in Asia which criminalizes enforced disappearances, making the Philippines a model of human rights protection.

The most important part of the law, says Caloy, is the abolition of the ‘order of battle’, the military’s so-called ‘hitlist’.

"The order of battle is a list of what the military considers a threat to the security of the state and the government. This  includes insurgent groups like the New People's Army, the Abu Sayyaf and Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but  also includes groups that are operating legally and above ground, that the Army thinks are fronts for insurgent groups - human rights groups, peasant organizations, environmental organizations, media groups. The reason why the order of battle is considered a hitlist is because a lot of the individuals that have been listed across the country have ended up dead, assassinated in the continuing extrajudicial killings in the Philippines."

But according to Lorena Santos, the secretary general of Desaparecidos, a group of families and friends of the victims of enforced disappearances, it will take more than a law to stop impunity.

"We aren’t under the illusion that this law would finally put an end to enforced disappearances. As long as military institutions remain the same, enforced disappearances will continue."


Last Updated ( Saturday, 19 January 2013 13:44 )  

Add comment

Asia Calling House Rules for Comments:
We reserve the right to fail messages that:
· Are likely to provoke, attack or offend others
· Are racist, homophobic or sexists or otherwise objectionable
· Contain swear words or other language likely to offend
· Break the law or encourage illegal behavior
· Include contact details including number or email address
· Are considered to be advertising or promoting a product or SPAM
· Are considered off-topic

Security code