I am taking this opportunity in the adjournment debate tonight to alert the Senate to a report launched at Parliament House yesterday. The report, entitled Getting Away With Murder — Impunity for Those Targeting Church Workers in the Philippines, was produced by the Uniting Church in Australia’s Justice and International Mission Unit. This report serves to highlight the numerous cases of murders and death threats perpetrated against the citizens of the Philippines and provides a detailed description of 14 cases of Uniting Church of Christ members who have been murdered in the past two years.
The Philippines has a well-documented past of political unrest, with the suppression of workers, unionists, social justice advocates, political activists and, indeed, church members. I, along with many other Australians, can vividly recall the toppling of the disgraced Marcos regime. Following that, most of us could have easily assumed that democracy is alive and well in the Philippines; however, this is simply not the case. Since Gloria Arroyo came to power in January 2001, over 600 civilians, including trade union leaders, environmentalists, lawyers, municipal councillors and journalists, have been killed. As this report reveals, amongst the dead are pastors, priests and lay members of the various churches in the Philippines. In addition to this, many more activists have had threats made against them or assassination attempts made on their lives.
The common factor in all of these cases is that the victims have been outspoken on issues of poverty and justice. They have advocated for poor and oppressed people in the Philippines, for workers’ rights, for civil liberties and for human rights, and some have been directly critical of the government. Most notably and perhaps most tragically, the common link between these deaths is that they could have been prevented through government intervention. In almost all of these cases, the prime suspects are government military intelligence units. As a consequence, very few of them have been adequately investigated and the perpetrators of these heinous crimes have not been brought to justice.
These themes are corroborated by Amnesty International, who on Tuesday released their report into human rights abuses in the Philippines. The Amnesty International report states that:
The common features in the methodology of the attacks, leftist profile of the victims, and an apparent culture of impunity shielding the perpetrators, has led Amnesty International to believe that the killings are not an unconnected series of criminal murders, armed robberies or other unlawful killings. Rather they constitute a pattern of politically targeted extrajudicial executions taking place within the broader context of a continuing counter-insurgency campaign. The organisation remains gravely concerned at repeated credible reports that members of the security forces have been directly involved in the attacks, or else have tolerated, acquiesced to, or been complicit in them.
Human rights abuses in the Philippines are further backed up by other international organisations.
Despite being a signatory to a number of international treaties protecting human rights and having the protection of human rights enshrined in legislation, this report affirms that since President Arroyo came to power:
... a national human rights organisation has documented 4,207 cases of human rights violations, which include killings, enforced disappearances, illegal arrests and unlawful detention, indiscriminate firings and forcible evacuation.
In launching the report, Reverend Gregor Henderson, President of the Uniting Church in Australia, remarked that it was with a great sadness and solidarity with which he presented the report. He informed us of his visit last year to an indigenous village in the highlands of the Philippines which, prior to his visit, had suffered from two weeks of occupation by the Filipino army. During his time there the reverend had met with 14 members of the village who had told him of the suffering and devastation they had experienced at the hands of the army who, in an attempt to force out Communist guerrillas, had shot at civilians and had forced them to be relocated.
The most heart wrenching story Reverend Henderson relayed to the members and senators who were present at the launch yesterday was that of a nine-year-old from the same village. This young boy told the story of how during the occupation a soldier had stood over him with a rifle pointed at his head. The Filipino soldier told the boy that he may as well kill him immediately because if he grew up he would turn into a communist guerrilla and they would kill him then anyway. The soldier then forced the boy to dig a grave in the ground with his bare hands—a grave that would be for himself, his father and his mother. Fortunately for this young boy, a military officer intervened and his life was saved. But this story serves to highlight the sad and tragic threats that the poor and oppressed people of the Philippines face daily at the hands of the military.
As I indicated earlier, the report documents cases of murder in the Philippines. Amongst them is the case of Reverend Edison Lapuz. Reverend Lapuz was an advocate in both the church and his local community. His pastoral work exposed him to the issues facing the marginalised in the community. At the time of his death he was the convenor of a civil liberties group made up of lawyers. This group focused on investigating cases of murders and human rights abuses, with the goal of pursuing legal avenues to resolve them.
His involvement in this group brought him to the attention of the local military authorities and the police, who surveyed his activities. Prior to his death, the commanding officer of the local military detachment visited the home of Reverend Lapuz’s father on several occasions to find out information on the whereabouts of Reverend Lapuz. Reverend Lapuz was murdered on 12 May 2005. He and a friend were shot by two masked assailants who later fled on motorbikes. No-one has ever been arrested for this murder.
Tragically, this story is typical of the other 13 cases compiled in the report and so many other cases of murder in the Philippines. From the cases cited in the report, its authors have come to conclude that the most likely perpetrators are the security forces in the Philippines. This conclusion is supported by the Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines itself.
In response to the recurrent murders, President Arroyo has made numerous public statements condemning them. However, there is not yet any evidence of action. This lack of tangible evidence of a commitment from the government to protecting human rights has resulted in the report concluding that the killings have received tacit approval from the government of the Philippines.
What can we learn from a report like this? The report identifies a need for strong institutional reform. It calls for an adequate witness protection program and a properly resourced human rights commission within the Philippines. We as senators also need to look at the role that Australia plays in providing support to the Philippines. The Philippines is currently the sixth largest recipient of Australian development assistance. In the last financial year Australia provided the Philippines with over $21 million in official development assistance. As an economic donor to the country we have an obligation to ensure that our financial assistance to the Philippines does not support or promote these atrocities in any way whatsoever.
We also have a moral obligation to continually raise our concerns with the government of the Philippines. The report goes further, and recommends that Australia offer financial assistance to the Philippines government that is conditionally directed to the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines. It also suggests that Australia provide assistance to NGOs that are working to promote the protection of human rights in the Philippines. These are positive recommendations that we as leaders in the region should heed.
In summing up, I would like to congratulate the authors of this report. Whilst the release of a report like this is always marked with sadness and regret, I congratulate Ms Caz Coleman, Dr Mark Zirnsak and Ms Kerryn Clarke for bringing these abuses to the attention of the Australian community. I would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge that the launch of the report was attended by His Excellency Ernesto de Leon, the Philippine Ambassador to Australia. I welcome the ambassador’s willingness to listen to our concerns on this issue and I am grateful for his enthusiasm for meeting with members of the Australian community. He has been gracious enough to agree to meet with me tomorrow morning. I embrace this as an opportunity to further discuss my concerns about breaches of human rights in this region.
Australia and the rest of the international community have a moral obligation to make sure that democracy in the Philippines does not die. President Arroyo has to act to stop the political persecution and physical attacks upon people who advocate for civil liberties and human rights. I encourage her to continue with her statements and back this up with positive, reinforced action. I encourage all Australians to show their opposition to the ongoing attacks on democracy and human rights in the Philippines. I commend this report to the Senate. I seek leave to table the report.
The Uniting Church of Australia report Getting Away With Murder - Impunity for Those Targeting Church Workers in the Philippines, can be downloaded at http://victas.uca.org.au/main.php?pg=download&id=2165
The Amnesty International report Philippines: Political Killings, Human Rights and the Peace Process can be downloaded at http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/engasa350062006