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Presiding Bishop calls for action on Philippines human rights abuses

By Matthew Davies
1/12/2007
[Episcopal News Service]  Raising concerns about human rights violations in the Philippines, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has responded to a letter from Avelino T. Razon Jr., deputy director general of the Philippine National Police (PNP), in which she challenges the Philippine government for not showing "any real success in ending extra-judicial killings."

Razon's letter, which sought to clarify statistics and offer assurances that the necessary action is being taken, "falls far short of providing an adequate response to what is clearly a grave problem within the Philippine government at this time," Jefferts Schori said.

Extra-judicial or political killings occur without the permission of a court or legal authority and are generally carried out by a State in order to rid itself of a disruptive influence. More than 700 such killings have been reported under the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, according to the human rights alliance KARAPATAN, but Razon insisted that these numbers were erroneous.

The murder of Bishop Alberto Ramento of the Philippine Independent Church, who was found stabbed to death at his Tarlac City rectory on the morning of October 3, prompted an outcry from Church leaders calling for an end to the spate of such killings. Ramento had been an outspoken critic of the Philippine government and received several death threats in the lead-up to his murder.

In citing Ramento's murder as one of many such incidents involving Christians in the country, Jefferts Schori noted that Church partners in the Philippines "remain skeptical and raise serious questions" about the Government's conclusions that identified robbery as the motive.

"In any country where such a serious human rights problem emerges, it is incumbent upon the government not only to investigate the murders, but to bring those responsible to justice, and to protect the people from future incidents," Jefferts Schori said. "That does not appear to be happening consistently, and after consultation with leaders in Manila, I am deeply concerned for the welfare of our sisters and brothers who raise their voices for social justice at risk to their own lives."

The Rev. Canon Brian Grieves, director of Peace and Justice Ministries for the Episcopal Church, went on a fact-finding mission to the Philippines in December 2006 and learned of the sobering statistics that more than 700 people had perished as a result of extra-judicial killings during Arroyo's administration.

In contrast, the National Police Commission (NPC) of the Philippines estimates that only 136 such killings can been identified. "Whatever the actual numbers are," Grieves said, "it is indisputable that the government has failed to resolve or slow the problem of so-called 'extra-judicial' or political killings."

Razon's letter, dated November 21, 2006, said that the Philippine National Police is "seriously looking into the matter and continuously conducting investigation through the task force 'USIG' to solve the issue of alleged political killings in the country."

In November 2006, Grieves joined the Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara, national missioner for Asian American Ministries, in registering concerns with the Philippine Embassy and the State Department about the deteriorating human rights situation in the Philippines.

Ambassador Willy Gaa at the Philippine Embassy promised to relate the matter to Arroyo and noted that the Philippine Human Rights Report of the ecumenical churches should also be submitted to the Melo Commission of the Philippine Government, which is in charge of investigating the killings.

But Jefferts Schori said in her letter that Church leaders in the Philippines had informed her that USIG and the Melo Commission "lack the independence necessary for you to provide an unbiased and credible report," and raised concerns of Arroyo's appointment of many retired military officers to important government positions.

"I would wish from you, but even more from President Arroyo, actions that show that the government is genuinely committed to protecting its own people," she said, citing reports that those holding rallies in support of human rights experienced bullying tactics and intimidation from the government "to create a sense of fear rather than protection."

"People do not feel safe with your government," she said. "That people are being killed because of their defense of human rights is undeniable."

In sharing her letter with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Senator Joseph Biden, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Representative Tom Lantos, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Jefferts Schori acknowledged that she is calling on the United States take further steps "to emphasize our deep concern," and asking that "financial commitments to the Philippines be reviewed...."

Jefferts Schori also expressed her dismay in learning "that many Filipinos see these killings as worse than under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos," whose presidency from 1965 to 1986 was marred by government mismanagement, political repression and serious human rights violations. "That is a deeply sobering indictment that I never expected to hear," she said.

Finally, Jefferts Schori vowed that U.S. Church leaders "will continue to monitor and make known our distress over the deeply troubling human rights problems now besetting your country, and we will continue to actively support our partner churches in the Philippines as they work to bring these concerns to the attention of the international community, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission."

The full text of Jefferts Schori's letter follows:

January 10, 2007

Avelino T. Razon Jr.
The Deputy Chief, PNP for Administration/Task Force "Usig" Commander
Republic of the Philippines
National Police Commission
Camp Crame, Quezon City
Manila
Philippines

Dear Mr. Razon:

I appreciate that you have taken the time to respond to my concerns about the rise of political killings in the Philippines during the Arroyo Administration. I am encouraged that you, as a government representative, have taken notice not only of my concern, but of the concerns of many other church leaders in the Philippines, the United States, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong, among others.

However, I must make clear that your letter falls far short of providing an adequate response to what is clearly a grave problem within the Philippine government at this time. Whatever figures you attempt to cite, it is clear that the government has not yet shown any real success in ending extra-judicial killings. The murder of Bishop Alberto Ramento is but one of many involving church clergy and workers. While you have arrested three persons for the murder of Bishop Ramento, with robbery as the motive, our Church partners in the Philippines remain skeptical and raise serious questions about your conclusions, including why persons committing a robbery needed to murder the bishop, and in such a vicious way.

In any country where such a serious human rights problem emerges, it is incumbent upon the government not only to investigate the murders, but to bring those responsible to justice, and to protect the people from future incidents. That does not appear to be happening consistently, and after consultation with leaders in Manila, I am deeply concerned for the welfare of our sisters and brothers who raise their voices for social justice at risk to their own lives.

I would wish from you, but even more from President Arroyo, actions that show that the government is genuinely committed to protecting its own people. I have received reports that when church groups and others hold rallies in support of human rights, government entities take photos of those at the rallies and use bullying tactics and intimidation to create a sense of fear rather than protection. People do not feel safe with your government.

That people are being killed because of their defense of human rights is undeniable. I speak here not only of church leaders, but journalists, community organizers, and human rights lawyers. You attempt to explain this away in your letter to me by criticizing a human rights organization. President Arroyo says her government does not use extra-judicial killings as part of her government's policy. But what is she doing to show a credible response to those who have been killed? Where is the evidence that these killings are at an end under her leadership?  Her appointment of many retired military officers to important government positions is deeply troubling when viewed in the context of this situation. Church leaders in the Philippines tell me the Task Force USIG and the Melo Commission lack the independence necessary for you to provide an unbiased and credible report.
 
While I have assurances that the United States government has raised these killings with the Arroyo Administration, I am asking that the United States take further steps to emphasize our deep concern. I am sharing this letter with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Senator Joseph Biden, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Representative Tom Lantos, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asking that United States financial commitments to the Philippines be reviewed in the wake of continuing human rights abuses being committed today in your country.
 
I am dismayed to learn from further inquiry that many Filipinos see these killings as worse than under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. That is a deeply sobering indictment that I never expected to hear, yet it was repeated often in my inquiries.

I wish to assure you of the ongoing concern of many religious leaders in the United States and elsewhere. We will continue to monitor and make known our distress over the deeply troubling human rights problems now besetting your country, and we will continue to actively support our partner churches in the Philippines as they work to bring these concerns to the attention of the international community, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Faithfully yours,

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

CC: President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo
The Honorable Condoleezza Rice
The Honorable Joseph Biden
The Honorable Thomas Lantos