Poverty with impunity a recipe for disaster

FROM FAR AND NEAR - Ruben Almendras - The Freeman

For many days last week, Justice Secretary Remulla repeatedly denied the existence of impunity in the Philippines and that the government does not want impunity to rule the country. These were in connection with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights 4th cycle review of the Philippines’ commitment to human rights in Geneva last Nov. 14, 2022. He cited that the recent conviction of two policemen in the torture and killing of two teenagers in 2017 as proof, without mentioning that there are more than 7,000 more of these killings that are unresolved.

In the same week, after coming from the ASEAN Summit in Bangkok, BBM reiterated his commitment to bring down the Philippine poverty rate to 9% by 2028 from the current 19%. In the SWS survey of self-rated poverty in October 2022, 49% of Filipinos rated themselves poor, which is more than double the official government figures. Discounting the methodology difference and exaggeration from both sides, 34% is probably the poverty incidence with 16% below the poverty level.

While impunity is almost always associated with human rights violations by police and military personnel, acts of impunity cover all actions that are exempt from the consequent accountability and punishment. It is the impossibility de jure or de facto of bringing the perpetrators of violations to account in criminal, civil, or administrative proceedings. It covers all unethical, illegal, and immoral acts of the authorities, government and private sector.

In governments, corrupt practices and transactions that are condoned, covered up, and left unpunished are the most prevalent. Extra judicial killings are definitely acts of impunity but so are election cheating, terrorism, and corruption. The many unresolved/unpunished corruption cases of the previous administration, and the reappointment/appointment of corrupt officials are acts of impunity.

There is a causal relation between impunity and poverty, as impunity promotes graft and corruption in government and that leads to more poverty, as the government resources are diverted to non-productive uses. Then, as the poverty diminishes the voice of the people and makes them more dependent on the government, it emboldens and increases the sense of impunity of the officials. It creates a downward vicious cycle leading to economic and socio-political collapse. Recent extreme examples of these phenomena would be Venezuela, Myanmar, Lebanon, and Sri-Lanka, where economies are in a tailspin and the socio-political situation in disarray. The recent defeats of the incumbents/ruling parties in Brazil and Malaysia, and Russia and China’s counter-balancing impunity with economic growth are warning signs.

Still, the best example would be the Marcos martial law regime, where the official poverty level was at 46% in 1984 and government impunity was at its highest that the people power revolution had to happen in 1986.

It is good that Secretary Remulla and many other government officials are aware of the dangers of impunity and made public pronouncements. However, these have to be supported by significant and substantive actions to convince the people. Two convictions of abusive policemen out of the thousands is not enough. Stronger initiatives and policies are called for to reverse the abuses, even if it means reversing the Duterte-inspired police mentality. The improvement in the economic and poverty conditions in the Philippines will take at least 10 years, so if BBM wants a minimally successful presidency and make a noticeable improvement in the Marcos name and legacy, the elimination of the sense and culture of impunity in government is a must.

BBM’s pronouncements, directives, and orders to his cabinet and government officials all sound fine. These will not just magically happen but will need the organization, implementation, and control mechanism to get done. Able, credible, and incorruptible officials down the line are needed, and maybe the clean heart of the leader.


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