[Reflection] The struggle of memory against forgetting


Promotional Poster of Beinte Singko. Image from http://www.tfdp.net.

By Darwin Mendiola

Speech delivered during the Opening Ceremony of Beinte Singko at UP Diliman

Remembering the Past is looking at the future

My organization, the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances is taking part in this memory project for the week-long celebration of the International Human Rights Day for one good reason. We believe a society that has experienced a traumatic politcal situation must preserve and come to terms with its past in order to rekindle and rebuild a hope for the future. To borrow the words of Milan Kundera that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. This, what I believe, is the main objective of Beinte Singko: The Festival of Memories, Creation of New Stories. This is especially true to victims of enforced disappearance.

“Hindi na po bago sa atin ang usaping ito. Marami na pong taga-UP ang naging biktima ng sapilitang pagkawala. Sino po ang makakalimot kina Atty. Hermon Lagman, Jessica Sales,  Rizalina Ilagan, Geraldo Faustino at marami pa na sapilitang iwinala sa ilalim ng Martial Law o nina Jonas Burgos, Sherlyn Cadapan at Karen Empeno na iwinala sa ilalim ng administrasyon ni Gng. Arroyo. Isa po itong karumaldumal na paglabag sa karapatang pantao.”

Enforced disappearance is one of the cruelest forms if not the cruelest violation of human rights that humanity has ever experienced. It is a multiple and continuous violation of the basic human rights not only of the direct victims but also of their families as well as the larger society.

It inflicts enduring and untold sufferings to the victims as they are removed from the protection of the law and denied access to legal safeguards. They are often tortured and in constant fear for their lives and haplessly put at the mercy of their captors. Sometimes, they are murdered without leaving any shred of evidence.

It also brings ill-effects to the victims’ families for not knowing the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones. They are placed in limbo between hope and despair, praying and waiting, pleading and demanding for answer that may never come. They are not only deprived of the right to mourn but also to find closure.

Enforced disappearance has a particular devastating impact on women and children. For women who are usually left behind to tend the families, they often bear the brunt of the serious economic hardships. They are dispossessed of legal status to obtain pensions or other means of support because of the absence of death certificate. When women are victims of disappearance themselves, they are particularly vulnerable to sexual and other forms of violence. The children of the disappeared are also victims. The disappearance of a child or the loss of a parent as a consequence of enforced disappearance, are serious violations of child’s rights.

It also causes fear and terror among the people belonging to the same community.

Enforced disappearance was first introduced by the Nazis during the Second World War under the Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) Decree where hundreds of thousands of people were made to disappear throughout Nazi Germany’s occupied territories. It spread around the world and has become one of the wicked features of military dictatorships and authoritarian regimes particularly in the Latin America.

Enforced disappearance continues to happen globally.

“Patuloy po itong nangyayari sanmang sulok ng mundo.”

Many governments still employed this atrocious practice as a tool of state repression and political witch hunt. It is a major human rights concern of 83 countries around world based on the 2010 report of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the first thematic UN body created in 1982 to monitor the incidences of enforced disappearances worldwide. Many of these cases occur in 27 countries of Asia, a continent that has the highest number of cases submitted to the UNWGEID in recent years. Unfortunately, Asia lacks a strong regional mechanism for redress and no domestic laws penalizing disappearance as a separate and autonomous criminal offense. This condition perpetuates a climate of impunity that allows perpetrators to escape accountability.

The very existence of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), a regional federation of organizations of the families of the disappeared and human rights advocates working directly on the issue of enforced disappearance in Asia, refutes the claim of many states that enforced disappearance is already a thing of the past and merely a Latin American experience.

 A Regional Response in the Struggle against Impunity

In Asia, enforced disappearances remain widespread and unabated.  The narrowing democratic spaces in many Asian countries have consequently resulted to the alarming increase of human rights violations in the region including enforced disappearance.

While many governments in Asia have started to democratize and recognize human rights as an important cornerstone of governance, there is still a wide disjoint between the state policies and day-to-day practices. It is the state’s overemphasis on security and stability continues that creates a huge roadblock in the development of human rights. The war on terror policy is one of the most convenient excuses for the brazen disregard human dignity and freedom.

What makes the situation all the more difficult is the absence of regional as well as national human rights mechanisms which are necessary recourses for redress. The struggle of the organizations of families and human rights organizations in their respective countries in the fight for accountability and the end to impunity has given birth to Asia-wide federation as a cogent response to the phenomenon of disappearances in the region.

Our efforts together with the similar formations in other continents have made possible the recognition of the importance and urgency to forge a global response through the adoption of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2006 by the United Nations General Assembly and entered into force on 23 December 2010. To date, this international human rights instrument has 90 signatories and 30 States parties. However, only 13 of these States Parties have recognized the competences of the Committee.

Thus AFAD has continuously campaigned for the signatures and ratifications of the Convention and for its eventual universal application.

The domestic road towards the universal protection against Enforced Disappearance

In the Philippines, one glaring problem for its continuing commission is the complete lack of accountability. Not only that cases of enforced or involuntary disappearance are by their very nature difficult to investigate and prosecute, it persisted and has been carried out with total impunity. The perpetrators of this heinous offense have absolute impunity because there is no physical evidence extant to pin the blame on any person. This proves that the existing legal measures that provide safeguard for lives and liberties are inadequate and insufficient to combat impunity.

For almost two decades, the organization of families of the disappeared and other human rights groups have steadfastly lobbied Congress to enact a law defining and penalizing enforced or involuntary disappearance.  It was filed and re-filed in Philippine Congress but lamentably was not acted on by previous Congresses.

The Philippine bill against enforced disappearance is one of the two existing bills in Asia. The other one is in Nepal. If enacted into law by the Philippien government, it will be the first anti-enforced disappearance law in region and can set a good example to other Asian governments.

However, it has just recently that it sees the light of day with approval of the Senate on its third and last reading the Senate Bill 2817 on July 26 and the adoption of the Joint Committees of Human Rights and Justice of the approved House Bill 5886 on August 17 as a substitute bill for plenary deliberations.

This is indeed a welcome development. But it also give us more reasons to continue our work as we continuously urge Asian governments to immediately sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons Against Enforced Disappearance without reservation and to enact a domestic legislation without further delay.

There are at least 10 reasons why government should do so:

  1. Both measures define the act enforced or involuntary disappearance. It limits commission of forced disappearance to deprivation of liberty for political reasons by agents of the State or by private persons or group of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State. It is the recognition that the state is duty bound and has the primary obligation to promote, protect and fulfill the rights of its people;
  1. Both consider enforced disappearance as a continuing offense as long as the perpetrators continue to conceal the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person and such circumstances have not been determined with certainty. This means that an act of enforced disappearance committed in the past continue to occur until the fate and whereabouts of the victim is verified and that that the prosecution of persons responsible for the enforced disappearance shall not prescribe unless the victim surfaces alive, in which case the prescriptive period (in this case 25 years) shall start to run from the date of his or her reappearance;
  1. Both are consistent with the principle of command responsibility. It holds the immediate hold any person involved in an enforced disappearance criminally responsible, as well as their superiors who knew or should have known what they were doing, and should have prevented, investigated and punished the subordinates for wrongdoing. The disputable presumption of knowledge by the superior of the acts of the subordinate and to eliminate the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duties in prosecution of cases involving enforced disappearance;
  1. Both guarantee the non-derogability of rights against enforced disappearance. This means that the right of any person not to be subjected to enforced disappearance and no exceptional circumstances, not even a state of war, may be invoked as justification;
  1. Both clearly differentiate between enforced disappearance committed as part of a massive or systematic practice and that of isolated and sporadic cases committed outside of the context of armed conflict. Thus it characterizes enforced disappearance as a crime against humanity only when the actions involved are committed within the framework of a massive or systematic practice and otherwise considered as an international crime;
  1. Both provide a number of protection and preventive measures such as to require official Up-to-date register of all persons detained or confined; to visit to or inspection of all places of detention by the National Human Rights Institution; to institute stringent safeguards for the protection of people deprived of their liberty; declare unlawful an order from a superior officer or a public authority causing the commission of enforced disappearance and therefore such order cannot be invoked as a justifying circumstance; prevent the accused from influencing the investigation and prosecution of the cases, the bill provides for his/her preventive suspension upon the filing of the information or complaint in the proper court; and the guarantee of non-refouler;
  1. Both recognize the rights of victims as well as the duties of the state to investigate, to prevent and to hold the perpetrators accountable. Both provide specific rights to the victims such as the right of a person under detention; free access to information by families, lawyers or human rights organizations at most expedient means without restrictions or court order; and rights to receive indemnification, medical care and rehabilitation. It also bestows duties to the state such as to certify in writing on the results of Inquiry into the reported disappeared person’s whereabouts; duty of inquest/ investigating public officer or any judicial or quasi judicial employee; provide appropriate medical care and rehabilitation; and to render monetary compensation to the victims and ensure restitution of their honor and reputation. The Philippine government is likewise duty bound to comply with the obligations arising from treaty bodies in which Philippines is a state-party;
  1. Both requires the state to train  law enforcement personnel on the content of the law and the absolute prohibition to commit enforced disappearance;
  1. Both exclude any investigation, trial, decision for any other legal or administrative process before the appropriate international court or agencies under applicable international human rights and humanitarian law from double jeopardy rule; and
  1. Both have an Oversight Committee to ensure compliance with the provision of the law and/ or the treaty.

Establishing these legal measures and mechanisms both at the international and national level is just one big step towards ending impunity for human rights violations. This step may not bring back to life those who are made to disappear but these will certainly help prevent others from suffering the same fate, sparing their families from the perpetual agonies of the uncertainty and freeing the society from fear. Thus, the struggle against forgetting and the struggle against impunity must go on…

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6 thoughts on “[Reflection] The struggle of memory against forgetting

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