51 years of impunity: legacy of martial law

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

“It was a period of unmitigated tyranny and corruption in our history that we must never forget and, more importantly, must never allow to happen again.”

That was the core message – reflected on t-shirts, flyers, placards and streamers – that human rights defenders reiterated as protesters across the nation once more recalled Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s declaration of martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, and his 14-year dictatorship that followed.

“We find ourselves facing the same forms of repression with the enforcement of the counterterrorism laws that are essentially martial law instruments,” asserted Karapatan, the human rights alliance. Much like the Marcosian presidential decrees of the past, these laws are being used to silence dissent and stifle protest, said its secretary-general Cristina Palabay.

“We must stand against Marcos Jr.’s repressive measures, just as we stood against Marcos Sr.’s dictatorship of the past,” she exhorted the assembled protesters at Liwasang Bonifacio in Manila. “From the regime of the dictator-father to that of the son, we have endured and fought against tyranny.”

(Founded in 1995, Karapatan has documented human rights violations in the Philippines under successive post-dictatorship administrations. Its annual reports, provided to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have been considered by the UN Human Rights Council in conducting its periodic review of each member-nation’s human rights situation.

(Many of Karapatan’s field workers and some regional leaders have fallen victim to state-sponsored extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arrest and detention, vilification and various forms of intimidation and harassment.)

Palabay pointed out that the NTF-ELCAC (National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict, now chaired by Marcos Jr. with Vice President Sara Duterte and National Security Adviser Eduardo Año as co-vice chairpersons) is being used to persecute activists, rights defenders and other dissenters.

“Several political activists and human rights defenders have already been unjustly and arbitrarily labeled as terrorists, criminally charged and their personal and organizations’ assets and properties subjected to civil forfeiture proceedings,” she added.

She repeated the demand to abolish the NTF-ELCAC and to repeal the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 and the Anti-Terrorism Financing Law.

It is easy to understand why human rights violations were carried out with impunity during the Marcos dictatorship: It was a one-man tyrannical rule. Every presidential decree, executive order and issuance was automatically deemed as “part of the laws of the land.” In combining the Armed Forces of the Philippines with the then Philippine Constabulary (now the PNP), Marcos Sr. allowed them free rein to violate the people’s human rights.

But why has the impunity persisted under all the post-dictatorship administrations?

Let’s go back briefly to February 1986, when a peaceful people’s uprising that began on EDSA swept across the nation and led to the ouster of the Marcos dictatorship. Note the following facts:

• As the massing of people on EDSA reached over a million, the two key martial law implementers – Juan Ponce Enrile (then defense minister and who had instigated the failed coup against the dictator) with Fidel V. Ramos (then deputy armed forces chief) – decided to join the uprising. Thus the duo emerged as “heroes of the EDSA revolution.”

• As president, Cory Aquino named Enrile as defense minister and Ramos as armed forces chief in her government.

• President Aquino also retained intact the entire national security forces, from the top generals to the buck privates. Not one official or member of the armed services was called to account for the human rights violations committed during the dictatorship. No one was investigated, much less formally charged in court.

• It’s true that the armed forces and the national police, after they were restored to their previous organizational status, went through orientations on human rights. But the seminars didn’t make much of a difference in their attitudes and behavior. The extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, illegal arrests and detention and other human rights violations attributed to the security forces have continued. Thus impunity has prevailed.

I can’t help being struck by the stark contrast with the situation in Latin America, as we read in press reports. Over there, after the downfall of the military dictatorships, popular demands impelled liberal or progressive heads of government to exact accountability from the military generals and lower officers responsible for the crimes committed during their reign of terror.

For example Chile. The military dictatorship by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had led the US-backed coup against the socialist President Allende on Sept. 21, 1973, reigned for 17 years (1973-1990). The Pinochet regime killed 3,200 people, of whom 1,469 were forcibly disappeared, according to the Permanent People’s Tribunal.

Fifty years afterward, 297 individual “repressors” had been sentenced to prison terms by Chilean courts – including those found responsible for the torture and murder of celebrated Chilean poet-singer Victor Jara on Sept. 16, 1973. Moreover, the PPT said, 1,300 more trials for human rights violations are still open.

In August, President Gabriel Boric launched a government plan to search for the remaining desaparecidos, of whom only 307 remains have been found since 1990. “It is time to make up for these absences, correct the faults, repair the damage, project ourselves beyond our pains,” Boric told a crowd on Sept. 11, when he led the commemoration of the 1973 coup.

Meantime, last Tuesday, the UNESCO conference in Saudi Arabia announced its decision to include in its list of sites “considered to be of outstanding value to humanity” the ESMA Museum and Site of Memory honoring those forcibly disappeared during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina.

President Alberto Fernandez welcomed the UNESCO decision, saying, “Memory must be kept alive… so that no one in Argentina forgets or denies the horrors that were experienced there.” The museum is in what used to be Argentina’s Naval School for Mechanics, the country’s “most infamous illegal detention center and torture center.”

Since 2006 the Argentinian government has held almost 300 trials relating to crimes against humanity committed during the seven-year dictatorship.

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