Urgent calls, reminders on int’l humanitarian law

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

It wasn’t surprising that President Duterte didn’t say a word about international humanitarian law on Aug. 12, the date observed worldwide as International Humanitarian Law Day, or IHL Day.

Malacañang left it to Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to issue a brief message, echoing the President’s recurring rant: that “terrorists” have been hampering government’s efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic (widely criticized as inadequate). However, he said, the administration has adhered to IHL’s constant reminder on the government’s obligation “to protect our people at all times.”

IHL Day commemorates the signing of the four Geneva Conventions on Aug. 12, 1949, five years after the end of World War II. The Conventions embody a set of rules (constituting IHL) intended to limit the harsh effects of armed conflicts, protect civilians and persons who are no longer participating in hostilities (including the wounded and the sick) and restrict the means and methods of warfare.

They capped a historic protracted effort that began in 1864. As of last count, 196 countries have ratified the Conventions, including their two Protocols, adopted in 1977: Protocol I pertains to wars between or among nations; Protocol II concerns internal armed conflicts – such as the 50-year ongoing war in the Philippines.

As expected, the human rights alliance Karapatan, which has been documenting human rights violations related to the armed conflict, described as “pure hypocrisy” the Duterte government’s stance on IHL Day. The group accused the government of committing “some of the worst violations” of IHL, citing the following: targeting civilians, especially activists and human rights defenders, in its counterinsurgency campaign through killings, arbitrary arrests and red-tagging; forcibly displacing communities and “mercilessly killing sick and wounded combatants who are considered hors de combat and desecrating their bodies.”

As proof of the last accusation, Karapatan referred to the separate instances when the military “paraded on social media” the photos of the bloodied corpses of Rona Jane Manalo, Andrea Rosal and Juvilyn Cullamat and “cruelly making their families suffer” by refusing to immediately turn over to them their remains.

Also, Karapatan pointed to the killings, during night-time police-military operations, of NDFP peace consultants Julius Giron, Agaton Topacio, Eugenia Magpantay and Reynaldo Bocala, and NDFP Mindanao spokesperson Alvin Luque. “The narrative that these elderly, sickly and unarmed consultants engaged in a shootout [“nanlaban”] is simply unbelievable… These killings were clearly cold-blooded murders and violations of the rights of persons under IHL,” the group said.

On Aug. 11, in a solidarity statement with Karapatan, 11 human rights formations, civil society organizations and partners abroad called out the Duterte government to account for some 40 cases of extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders (HRDs), carried out in an 18-month period – from January 2020 to June 2021.

Each of these 40 killings, which the statement said had been verified, is “abhorrent, and the trend is particularly worrying because these killings have taken place with absolute impunity.” Under the Duterte administration, it added, “perpetrators of the killings – be they police, military, or non-state actors – know that they could get away with killing HRDs.” The killings have hardly been investigated, it pointed out, “which increases the HRDs’ vulnerability and undermines the human rights community’s confidence in the country’s judicial system.”

Compounding the constant danger in which HRDs find themselves has been the passage and implementation of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, with its “overly-broad and vague definitions of terrorism,” thus, the statement noted, “legally formalizing the practice of red-tagging.”

The 11 organizations urged all governments to condemn the killings of HRDs in the Philippines as they pressed the Duterte government to allow a “thorough, impartial and independent investigation of all the 40 killings” and to commit to bring the perpetrators to justice. Further, they called on member-states of the Unites Nations Human Rights Council to “take the long-overdue action” by supporting such investigation.

On Aug. 12, long-time human rights and IHL specialist Soliman M. Santos Jr. cited an interesting finding on customary IHL, through a study by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2005. It says that State practice – established in Rule 138 of the Geneva Conventions (“The elderly, disabled and infirm affected by armed conflict are entitled to special respect and protection”) – is a norm of customary IHL applicable in both international and non-international armed conflict.

Santos pointed out, in a commentary published in the Inquirer, that respect for the elderly is also ingrained in Filipino values and culture. He cited this, along with the ICRC finding, as they relate to “certain incidents in the past two years in the context of the local communist armed conflict.” Specifically, he referred to the cases of certain “high value” leaders and personalities associated with the CPP-NPA-NDFP, all of senior age and in frail health, who were killed “in late-night or early-morning raids at their places of lodging either by definitely police/military units or by still unknown perpetrators, though largely suspected to be state-inspired.”

The names and dates of killings that Santos noted down: Julius Giron, 67, and his personal doctor Lourdes Tan Torres, March 13, 2020 in Baguio City; Randall Echanis, 72, Aug. 10, 2020 in Quezon City; spouses Eugenia Magpantay and Agaton Topacio, both 69, in Angono, Rizal; Antonio Cabanatan, 74, and wife Florenda Yap, 65, Dec. 25, 2020 in Oton, Iloilo; Reynaldo Bocala, 74, in Pavia, Iloilo; and Rustico Tan, 80, on May 28, 2021 in Camotes Island, Cebu.

Santos asked: “Can the concerned police/military commanders not, as a matter of policy and practice, exhaust options for the voluntary surrender of such persons and avoidance of unnecessary loss of life, in the spirit of the above-cited IHL customary rule and Philippine good customs and public policy?”

In equal manner, Santos asked the CPP-NPA, which he said had ordered punitive action against those responsible for the above-cited killings: “(Can you) accord special respect and protection for the elderly when it comes to (your) punitive actions?”

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