Dismantle paramilitary groups too, NY-based rights monitor urges Aquino

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/30 March) – President Aquino should dismantle all state-backed paramilitary groups along with private armies ahead of next year’s elections, the New York-based Human Rights Watch today said.

In a statement, HRW said paramilitary forces in the Philippines have a “long and continuing history of serious human rights violations,” and figured in the November 2009 Ampatuan massacre in Maguindanao province that left 58 people dead.

“Alleged abuses by paramilitary force members are rarely investigated or prosecuted, creating a climate of impunity that encourages further violations,” it added.

“President Aquino’s promise to dismantle ‘private armies’ is a necessary step to end election violence in the Philippines,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at HRW said, adding “he should go further and disband the state paramilitary forces that are frequently as abusive.”

Aquino announced on Wednesday that the Philippine National Police had “neutralized” 28 private armed groups, as of June 2011, arresting 106 suspects, and that 86 such groups remain.

HRW said the police should publish the full list of private armies and explain what steps have been taken to address state involvement in these groups.

It noted the bloody nature of Philippine elections and the role played by warring political factions with the support of private armies and state-backed paramilitaries.

As candidate for president in 2010, Aquino promised to revoke Executive Order 546 – signed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2006 – that has been used to justify arming Civilian Volunteer Organizations as “force multipliers” in counterinsurgency operations.

But Aquino has so far taken no steps towards dismantling paramilitary groups. In November 2010, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the president was still studying the proposal to scrap EO 546.

In the same month, Aquino also publicly hinted he was not keen on dismantling the Civilian Armed Force Geographical Units and other paramilitary groups under the armed forces, saying the communities needed protection against communist and Moro rebels.

Late last year, the president announced the government would tap paramilitary groups to help protect mining companies from attacks by rebel groups. His announcement came after the New People’s Army staged a simultaneous raid on three mining firms in Surigao del Norte.

The NPA, armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, marked its 43rd anniversary on Thursday.

Defense officials have assured they were taking steps to “professionalize” the Cafgus and insulate them from politics.

But HRW said efforts to “professionalize” these groups “have lacked transparency, in part because several regulations are treated as internal military documents.”

“Until these groups are fully dismantled, the public should know what paramilitary forces exist; what weapons they are entitled to carry; and when, where, and how they are recruited and trained,” it added.

In its 2010 report, “They Own the People: The Ampatuans, State-Backed Militias, and Killings in the Southern Philippines,” Human Rights Watch called on Aquino, among other recommendations, to systematically disarm all paramilitary and militia forces, end all private funding of such groups, and carry out a process in stages to reduce and disband them.

“Dismantling private armies should be more than a PR exercise,” Pearson said. “The failure to address paramilitaries as well as private armies puts political opponents and ordinary civilians at continued risk from powerful local politicians.”

Early this month, the paramilitary New Indigenous People’s Army Reform (Nipar) in San Fernando town in Bukidnon allegedly killed Dao barangay chair Jimmy Liguyon.

Aldy Salusad, Nipar’s acknowledged leader, had publicly admitted to killing Liguyon, whom he accused of being a rebel supporter.

But Liguyon’s family members linked the murder to the victim’s refusal to endorse the mining application of a a Lumad group called the San Fernando Matigsalug Tribal Datus Association (Sanmatrida). (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)