(Washington, DC) - US President Barack Obama should use his visit to Manila on April 28-29, 2014, to press the Philippines government to fulfill pledges to improve respect for human rights and accountability for serious abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.
The administration of President Benigno Aquino III has undertaken reform efforts in some areas but failed to match rhetoric with meaningful action to end impunity for extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances, Human Rights Watch said. While abuses overall have decreased since the previous Arroyo administration, killings of political activists, environmental advocates, and local politicians continue with alarming frequency and have begun to rise again, in many cases with apparent involvement by local authorities and the security forces.
"The Philippines remains a risky place to be an outspoken activist or muckraking journalist," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "People taking on powerful local interests all too frequently make the news as victims, and those responsible for killings are almost never prosecuted."
In a letter sent to Obama last month, Human Rights Watch urged the president to raise human rights issues during his visit to Manila.
The last year featured a major surge in killings of journalists in the Philippines: 12 were killed in 2013, bringing to 26 the total number of media workers killed since Aquino took office in 2010. In only six of those cases have police even arrested suspects.
Local authorities in a number of urban areas have also been implicated in "death squads," which have executed dozens of suspected petty criminals, drug dealers, and street children.
The Philippines military and various insurgent groups, including the communist New People's Army and Moro (Muslim) rebel groups, have also been implicated in serious abuses in the context of armed conflict. During fighting in September 2013 between Moro rebels and government forces in the southern city of Zamboanga, Human Rights Watch documented violations by both sides, including the use of human shields by the rebels. Detainees in government custody, including several children, told Human Rights Watch of torture and other abuse by government security forces.
A large number of those displaced last year by the fighting in Zamboanga remain today in poor conditions, living in evacuation camps, "transitional sites," or shelters. According to government health officials, in the past seven months more than 100 of the displaced have died, mostly children and infants, largely from preventable, sanitation-related illnesses.
The US Congress has placed conditions on assistance to the Philippines military since 2008, withholding portions of yearly funding until the Philippines government demonstrates a better record on prosecuting extrajudicial killing cases.
Human Rights Watch urged Obama to raise concerns about rights issues during his meeting with Aquino, and to use future US military cooperation as an incentive for the government to investigate and prosecute abuse cases.
"President Obama should make clear that US assistance to the Philippines military is linked to abusive personnel being held to account," Sifton said. "A strong US position on rights can only strengthen Aquino's hand in combating abuses."