By Carlos H. Conde
Published: Sept. 28, 2000
On top of the alleged human rights violations that have been leveled against it in the wake of the military’s assault on Sulu, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has also been violating its own rules of engagement, as well as the law that protects the rights and welfare of children.
This was the contention of Commission of Human Rights commissioner Nasser Marohomsalic during the Ciudad Fernandina forum in Greenhills on Wednesday.
Marohomsalic said that,”based what we gathered from media reports, particularly video footage, it is clear that the massive campaign against the Abu Sayyaf, which involves all the major services of the AFP, violates Republic Act 7610 (Child Welfare and Protection Law), which provides that the areas where children live are considered zones of peace.”
This type of massive military operation, the commissioner said, exposes the children, as well as the civilian noncombatants, to unnecessary risks.
He added that the use of artillery near populated areas is a violation of the AFP’s own rules of engagement as well as of RA 7610.
Marohomsalic said that, per statements and testimonies from refugees, local officials, even from military officials themselves, some of the bombing raids, “many of them indiscriminate,” were done in populated areas.
“There was footage of children hit by bombs, by shrapnel, while playing. This violation is contained in a policy directive of the AFP [that says] ‘the use of aerial, naval and artillery mortar [fire], especially when the firing missions are near populated areas and when civilian casualties, material damages are likely to be incurred, is strictly prohibited’,” Marohomsalic said.
Failure to coordinate
Another violation of the rules of engagement, he said, was the failure by the military to coordinate its assault with local officials. This coordination, Marohomsalic said, was crucial for the smooth delivery of basic services during the entire operations, particularly in the handling of refugees.
“From what we saw in the footage, civilians are evacuating without coordination with government; there was no organization at all.
This means that the military, before launching the campaign, did not coordinate with concerned local government officials and did not issue orders to move large groups of civilians,” he said.
He explained a policy articulated in a directive from the office of the AFP chief of staff which requires that before any serious combat operations are conducted, “there should be an order from the military establishment to move large groups of civilians so that they will not be unnecessarily and unduly exposed to risk during the operations. So this is another violation.”
The existing military blockade in Sulu, which is meant to contain the movement of people, is also a violation of RA 7610, the CHR Commissioner said, because it restricts the right of children to move about freely.
Under the rules of engagement, Marohomsalic added, the military is only allowed three days to impose a blockade from the start of the operations. This rule, he said, is reiterated in memorandum circular no. 139 issued by the Department of Justice in 1991.
“The assault on Jolo is now entering its second week, but there is still a blockade,” he said.
The commissioner also believes that the imposition of the news blackout constitutes a blockade as it prevents the flow of information from the area to the general public.
He explained that these are essentially human rights violations that the military “should be indicted for”.
In the meantime, Marohomsalic maintained that the Department of National Defense has to settle its liabilities with the residents in the affected areas.
Marohomsalic urged victims of human rights violations to approach the Department of Social Welfare and Development for assistance, as well as demand payment for damages from the DND.
“There is a policy directive that mandates that the DND to pay for damages incurred by civilians during military operations,” he said.
The assault on Jolo has already displaced 35,000 people, who were forced to evacuate the areas following massive bombings and ground assaults. There have also been reports of human rights violations, such as torture and summary executions, inflicted on civilians by the military.
The military, meanwhile, claims that it has killed more than 100 Abu Sayyaf members, although it has failed to show the bodies of the alleged bandits.
Charito Planas, one of the guests at the Ciudad Fernandina forum, raised the question about the veracity of the military’s allegation that those who died in the assault were all bandits.
Marohomsalic replied that the military is required to render a report detailing the circumstances surrounding the death of each alleged bandit. He also said that the AFP would be held responsible if it fails to notify the relatives of those who died, as required by law.
Under the law, anyone arrested by the military must be turned over to the nearest police station. “But apparently, this is not being done,” he said.
Marohomsalic emphasized that even in war, the legal institutions must continue to operate. “We cannot suspend human rights just because there is a war,” he said.
The filing of charges against certain personalities in government, he said, “should be the logical consequence because it is very clear that the [AFP’s] own rules of engagement have been violated.”
He said the CHR is now coordinating with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), which is contemplating filing a suit against the military before the Supreme Court. “As early as now, I would like to announce that I would join the IBP in filing the case,” Marohomsalic proclaimed.
He added that there has been no human rights case filed against any individual involved in the Jolo operation and that a three-member CHR team to be accompanied by representatives from the IBP was set to go to Jolo on Wednesday to investigate the human rights situation there.
“It will be a guided investigation,” Marohomsalic quipped, referring to the “guided tour” given by the military to journalists who have insisted on entering the war zone to get a clearer picture of the situation.
Defense Secretary Orly Mercado: “Nobody
can fault the AFP for doing nothing.”
‘Whatever we say now is suspect’
At another media forum earlier in the day at La Dolce Fontana Restaurant, Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado said he has instructed the military to allow and provide security to the representatives of the CHR “to go anywhere to be able to inspect, investigate and look into claims of human-rights violations.”
He added: “The AFP, the DND, the President, the Commander- in-Chief will not allow any violation of human rights to go unpunished. We will ultimately be the losers if we allow these things to happen.”
Mercado said that such violators would be held responsible under the law. “They will be criminally and administratively charged if they violate any laws on human rights, even if they are fighting bandits who have no respect for human rights. That is no excuse whatsoever to trample the basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” Mercado declared.
On the news blackout, the defense secretary maintained that it was necessary “because there is no way for journalists to go [into Jolo] on their own,” because more people might get kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf.
But, he added, as a result of the protest registered by the Defense Press Corps and the foreign correspondents, the journalists in Jolo have been allowed to go on a “guided tour” of the war zone. He said that he has instructed AFP chief of staff Gen. Angelo Reyes to allow the journalists to elect a pool of reporters to go on the guided tours.
Mercado said this sort of compromise is needed because “if we won’t allow access, we will have all sorts of stories that cannot be verified.”
He conceded that, because of the news blackout, “whatever we say now is suspect.” The solution, the former media journalist pointed out, “is access by the media.”
More frequent encounters
In his update, Mercado said the encounters between the troops and the Abu Sayyaf have become more frequent. This means, he said, that the soldiers are closing in on the bandits.
He also explained the prolonged crisis, saying that the Abu Sayyaf has shifted its tactics, going from one mountain to another. “The effort is to turn this into a guerrilla war,” he said.
But, Mercado said, the campaign in Sulu “is on track” and that the military is “simply carrying out President Estrada’s directive to once and for all end the cycle of violence” in Sulu.
This is important, he said, because the Abu Sayyaf has been growing in strength and number, increasing its firearms haul from 230 in 1994 to 460 in 1999.
Mercado added that from January 1 this year, the bandits have staged 47 “terrorist operations,” which represents a 67 percent increase compared to the 28 operations last year. So far, he said, the groups have kidnapped a total of 120 hostages.
However, whether the government will succeed in its campaign against the Abu Sayyaf “is something that we don’t know,” Mercado said.
At least, he said, “nobody can fault the AFP for doing nothing.”
Pan-Philippine News and Information Network