A team of six human rights experts from the European Union on Monday began a 10-day mission in the Philippines in an effort to help Manila halt extra-judicial killings of suspected leftist sympathisers.
Shootings and disappearances of leftist activists believed to be supporting Maoist guerrillas continue in spite of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s vow to stop them. The murders have tarnished the country’s image abroad just as the Philippines’ favourable economic prospects are attracting international investors.
Fact-finding teams from the UN human rights commission, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called Manila to task for not doing enough to stop the killings. They have also blamed many deaths on sections of the armed forces, that are fighting the long-running Muslim and communist insurgencies.
Alistair MacDonald, the European Commission ambassador to the Philippines, said the team, composed of lawyers and a former police investigator, was invited by Manila to identify technical assistance that the EU may provide to help the government investigate and prosecute those responsible for the killings.
It is thought to be the first time the EU has provided technical assistance to identify and charge state agents guilty of killings and abductions of anti-government activists in a foreign country, Mr MacDonald said.
The mission’s main purpose was to come up with practical recommendations to help bring those responsible to justice, and not just to condemn the killings or any government role in perpetuating them.
Rolf Saligmann, deputy head of mission at the German embassy in Manila, said: “Political considerations are not part of the mission’s focus.”
Manila, which has established 99 special courts to handle extra-judicial murders, wants help in training judges and prosecutors, building the government’s technical and forensic capacity to investigate cases, and raising human rights awareness within the military and police, said Mr MacDonald.
But human rights advocates in Manila warned the EU mission’s focus on capacity building may blind it to structural issues that contribute to the persistence of extra-judicial killings.
Socorro Diokno, secretary-general of Flag, a group of lawyers helping victims of torture and illegal detention, said: “If you really want to stop the killings, you have to look at the counter-insurgency programme, especially the labelling of leftist organisations as ‘enemies of the Filipino people’. If you won’t tackle it because it’s a political question, you won’t make much of a dent.”