Friday, April 8, 2011

International Human Rights in the Philippines

Humans are the most intelligent and civilized animals on earth. But like animals, we are territorial in nature. And being naturally territorial, we are very protective of our space and interests. Men in the same territory who shares common interest learned to form groups. Historically, conflicts between armed groups arise by trying to defend what they claimed as theirs. As war evolved, weapons used during armed conflicts also became deadlier where instances of brutal or inhumane killings are most likely to happen.

Different laws or standards in the conduct of war emerged. Trying to be civilized, humans agreed to have a common understanding during armed conflicts and efforts were undertaken to make war more humane in the nineteenth century. This is to have restrictions in the conduct of war and to have laws respecting humans and knowing when enough is enough. The most concrete and recognized form is the creation of the International Convention of the Red Cross in February 1863 and the signing of the International Humanitarian Law in August 1864 in the Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the wounded in armies in the field, which gave birth to the International Humanitarian Law.

The laws of war were based on the four cardinal rules. These rules include limitations, proportionality, humanity, and military necessity.

The International Humanitarian Law recognizes two categories of armed conflict namely the international and the non-international. “Non-international armed conflict involves hostilities between government armed forces and organized armed groups or between such groups within a state.” This definition therefore qualifies the different threat groups such as the NPA and the Islamic groups in the south. Even if wearing of uniform or distinctive sign and carrying of arms openly is required, exceptional circumstances such as wars of national liberation makes this requirement not strictly imposed. The carrying of arms openly is sufficient to identify that distinction.

However, this may not be easily applicable in the case of the terrorists groups such as the Abu Sayyaf. According to the Protocol I of the international treaty, “armed forces must be organized, be under a command responsible to that party and be subject to an internal disciplinary system that enforces compliance with humanitarian law.”

International Humanitarian Law provides recognition and protection only to organizations and individuals who act on behalf of a State or an entity that is a subject of international law. It excludes "private wars", whether conducted by individuals or groups. This means that "terrorist" groups such as Abu Sayyaf Group acting on their own behalf and without the requisite linked to a State or similar entity shall not be accorded prisoner of war protections.

Even if the Laws of War was originally crafted in the context of traditional military warfare, said convention still applies with the current form of armed conflict. Without the laws of war, conflicts will even become violent and inhumane, especially with the emergence of weapons of mass destruction. Weapons of mass destruction such as bio-warfare do not necessarily mean instant death to its targets. Though these modern weapons are not specifically described in IHL, it is still covered by the "Declaration of St Petersburg to the effect of prohibiting the use of certain projectiles in wartime" which says that "the only legitimate [objective] which States should endeavour to accomplish during war is to weaken the military forces of the enemy", and second, that, "this [objective] would be exceeded by the employment of arms which uselessly aggravate the sufferings of disabled men, or render their death inevitable".

The Philippines as a signatory to the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is bound by it even during peace time. The country’s present conflict scenario on the other hand is still close to actual clashes of armed groups with the probability of a member of either party becoming a prisoner of war. So the laws of war are still valid.

Although these laws of war shall be re-evaluated for thorough study on certain issues that may no longer be applicable to present realities in the battlefield. Because these laws will at least govern the future actions of groups in times of armed conflict especially those groups vying for international recognition.

Today, the laws of war distinguish the government armed forces from the terrorist groups like the Abu Sayaf. It also continuously affects the conduct of armed groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and New People’s Army (NPA). These groups may not want to abide with these rules but are bound to bear with it to gain political stature in the international community. Actions like mutilating the wounded or dead soldiers by beheading them during encounters are definitely unacceptable. Wounded soldiers must be treated as humane as possible and without unnecessary sufferings. There are even confirmed military and media reports that support government’s claim that both the MILF and NPA are using minors in combat and training them to be combatants as early as adolescent age.

It may not be very obvious to the public’s view that other Islamic militant groups hide behind the curtains of religious buildings for military purposes. But it is a fact known to few AFP personnel that these groups make use of mosques and even with the consent of priests/Imams as meeting place, armory and safety haven.

The clearest instance of religious buildings being used for military purposes is the stockpile of weapons and bomb paraphernalia reported by intelligence units as hidden in two separate mosques in Barangay Riverside, Maigo, Lanao del Norte and Barangay Pendulunan, Lanao del Sur. MILF fighters were sighted harboring in these mosques stockpiling high-powered firearms, ammunition and bomb paraphernalia.

IHL provides the protection of the wounded, sick or captured members of the armed forces, and civilians but forbids the use of hospitals for military purposes. A typical example happened in Lamitan, Basilan in year 2000, under the pressumption that Abu Sayyaf is not a terrorist group. The Abu Sayyaf Group led by Abu Sabaya barricaded the Hospital in Lamitan and held all doctors and nurses hostage inside the building covering and shielding from the pursuing military. While the gunfight is ongoing, they were able to have their wounded treated and there were reports that abuse of female nurses also happened in the building.

Above examples reflect the exploitation of physical churches and hospitals in pursuing their military objectives. Unfortunately, secessionist and terrorist groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and ASG respectively use religious ideology as a deception to gain mass based support and even international recognition. Last August 17, 2008, heavily armed MILF attacked and killed innocent civilians and unwary travelling military personnel in three towns of Lanao del Norte. This incident actually occurred gradually even before the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain was preempted. The groups of Umbra Kato and Kumander Bravo pressured the government for the implementation of said agreement, by rallying his men and performing atrocities under the banner of a religion.

This act of treachery by the MILF remains unpunished to this date considering that the perpetrators have hidden behind ideological and religious cloaks that professional and disciplined soldiers of the AFP dare not to desecrate.

With the above examples and actual experiences, present warring groups do not refrain from using religious, medical and cultural buildings or facilities for military purposes. Sadly and unfortunately, government forces are the only ones who adhere to the laws of war by refraining from the use of the mentioned facilities for military purposes.

The International Humanitarian Law (IHL) concerns limitations on the methods and means of warfare introduced in order to protect combatants and non-combatants alike. But with the actions made by the enemy groups in the country, the MILF tries to conceal their violation while the ASG are blatantly ignoring it, even to the extent of kidnapping workers of the International Committee on the Red Cross.

IHL unequivocally prohibits acts of terrorism, such as attacks against civilians or civilian objects. It also explicitly prohibits acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population. Thus, persons suspected of such acts are liable for criminal prosecution. Like the unacceptable acts of Abu Sayyaf terrorist group on mutilating and beheading soldiers who could no longer fight, and they should be prosecuted under our domestic criminal law.

Clearly, the IHL is followed only by those who are mandated such as the government forces while armed groups are forced to follow the same to gain international support. Unfortunately, the government is not pursuing the elevation of these violations to the international community, possibly so as not to grant them international political identity. Even if the IHL is applicable in the Philippine scenario, its continued re-evaluation is still recommended.

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