Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lernaean Hydra: the battle against impunity and its many layers

I’d say it was a pretty masterful job all round, wouldn’t you? I mean, it's positively breathtaking: the Supreme Court, COMELEC, Congress, the party-lists and computerized balloting, not to mention the warlords, the military and the police? Erap no longer the lone administration spoiler with Manny Villar (among others) now apparently in tow as well? Yes, indeed -- I’d have to say the Palace had all its bases covered. No doubt about it: a pretty thorough rigging all round.

I know I’ve been somewhat scarce of late. It started out with a laborious (if ultimately ineffectual) attempt to make sense of COMELEC’s party-list inclusions and exclusions, as well as the Supreme Court’s decision not to require public officials to relinquish their current positions if they hoped to run for elective posts in 2010. By the time the Ampatuan massacre had taken place, I was in a quiet state of rage. The overweening arrogance and sense of impunity with which Andal Ampatuan, Jr and his people comported themselves, COMELEC’s cavalier decision to make Shariff Aguak the site of the provincial capitol (where Toto Mangudadatu would have had to file his candidacy but which happened to be in Ampatuan territory, despite the well-publicized rift between the two clans), and the AFP’s decision not to escort the Mangudadatu convoy deeply troubled me, particularly in view of what it all implied about the central government’s role in the entire massacre. And what of those arms caches found in the properties of the Ampatuans, clearly bearing DND markings?

In the aftermath, as lurid and gory details began to emerge in swift and unabashed succession, a forensic anthropologist’s nightmare would ensue, in large part due to the poor handling and contamination of the victims’ remains and the massacre site itself: http://pcij.org/stories/report-of-the-humanitarian-and-fact-finding-mission-to-maguindanao/

Worse, the charge of rebellion in the context of martial law suggested that the offences were bailable and the perpetrators could still be granted amnesty. It was no wonder, then, that as of March of this year, the Philippines had already ranked sixth in the Global Impunity Index (
http://cpj.org/reports/2009/03/getting-away-with-murder-2009.php); immediately after the massacre, of course, the country quickly became the “worst on record” for journalists worldwide: http://cpj.org/2009/11/maguindanao-death-toll-worst-for-press-in-recent-h.php. So, apart from Senators Biazon and Gordon, why were not more Senators and Congressmen calling for an investigation into the source/s of the arms caches that had suddenly been “discovered” in Maguindanao?

By the time COMELEC had announced that Grace Padaca, Ed Panlilio, Brig Gen Danny Lim and Danton Remoto had been disqualified, the burning question needed to be asked: could it be that
all these institutions were in GMA’s pocket? Where does a nation turn to when its leaders, lawmakers, judiciary and law enforcement personnel routinely flout -- rather than uphold -- the rule of law? Were there anthropological underpinnings to this culture of impunity or was it purely a function of economic scarcity?

You can well understand why the sheer scale of this Lernaean Hydra
(http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Mythology/LernaeanHydra.html) had left me at an utter loss. To many, of course, much of this was nothing new: indeed, a cursory sweep of recent history indicated that the most egregious offenses have
tended to be swept under the rug altogether: US abandonment of the Philippines during the Japanese occupation; MacArthur and the “collaborators” hailed as heroes (indeed, with Manuel Roxas eventually becoming President); Cory not pursuing Marcos and his henchmen for the ill-gotten wealth and human rights violations; FVR remaining remarkably quiet about Danding; and GMA pardoning Erap despite his precedent-setting conviction. As my buddy Mac mournfully observed one evening: “These are the big-time cases, Lil — no wonder the little guys are so sure they can get away with murder: they can. The precedents are set.”

Surreal in the extreme, you will agree, to be listening to a congressional debate about martial law led by Enrile, of all people, the guy whose fake ambush had been the initial excuse for Marcos' declaration. Not to mention all the coup attempts he backed against Cory, indirectly stunting the country’s economic recovery. Hadn’t he even been charged with rebellion at one point? I suppose one could argue that this qualified him as an expert of sorts…

But what exactly was going on here, I had to wonder? Could the Constitution be part of the problem? Should more of these crimes be considered statutory?
From where I sit, it would appear that the higher courts tend to be constantly clogged with cases that could effectively be addressed in the lower courts. USAID goes on to suggest that it is not only the backlog of cases in the courts but the fact that legal personnel are grossly underpaid that explains the nature of this corruption trap:


It would also seem to be the case that there is a
shortage of lawyers, at least those who are willing to practice in trial courts.

Philippine law

Now I am certainly no lawyer but I
have spent some time struggling with various bills and legal systems in an attempt to understand our various options in the Ampatuan case. I am also blessed enough to have friends who happen to be lawyers and who have remained remarkably patient with me despite my repeated badgering… But I should add that I don’t have free and easy access to any international lawyers (both of the ones I know happen to be in the Hague at the moment and are swamped with the Milosevic case) so I have had to extrapolate on my own. I would argue, however, that the law is not rocket science, after all, and should be accessible to any citizen with enough concern and commitment, so here’s my take…

This piece was largely inspired by an increasing sense of inquietude at the thought that the perpetrators (apart from Andal, Jr, who was charged before the establishment of martial law and therefore with far more binding crimes than “rebellion”, unlike Andal, Sr, the actual mastermind of the operation) might eventually be granted amnesty. Of course, they would be charged with crimes punishable under the Constitution, the Revised Penal Code and other criminal laws. But
the Revised Penal Code defines rebellion as “rising publicly and taking arms against the Government for the purpose of removing allegiance from said Government the territory of the Republic of the Philippines or any part thereof…or depriving the Chief Executive or the Legislature, wholly or partially, of any of their powers or prerogatives.” As it is, rebellion is notoriously difficult to prove, but it can certainly be argued that it has variously been committed by: a.) specific Muslim separatists attempting to secede; b.) certain communist rebels attempting to violently overthrow the government; and c.) a handful of soldier rebels trying to unseat the Philippine president. But by Gloria’s primary allies in Maguindanao, to whom she remains eternally indebted for those large-scale election "victories" in 2004 and 2007? Hardly.

Unfortunately, bail remains a matter of right for non-capital offenses, although there is good reason to believe that Judge Solis-Reyes may refuse to grant it simply in deference to public outrage. Whether she is safer if the perpetrators remain incarcerated or if they are eventually freed is a matter of opinion, of course. There is after all a fairly sizeable Ampatuan army still out there able to carry out the family’s bidding either way…

I am told that amnesty remains unlikely, however. For instance, we can grant "amnesty" to insurgents who lay down their arms or rogue members of the military who decide to go back into the government fold. But the perpetrators have already been charged, so that does not appear to be an option (unless the charges are thrown out altogether because of the ultimately unconstitutional establishment of martial law). On the other hand, what may very well happen (and this is something we need to remain vigilant about) is a presidential pardon after the convictions have been made. This would not happen during
this presidency but in the next one, since such trials tend to take an inordinately long time, as many of you know. All the more reason why we need to be wary of Gibo Teodoro, who has brilliantly tried to distance himself from the arms caches and private armies that burgeoned wildly in Maguindanao under his watch at the DND. Similarly, highly placed (and very reliable sources) have informed me that Villar is a GMA spoiler, and that he plans to push for charter change as soon as he gets into office. GMA, once again the invisible hand, plans to sit as Prime Minister if and when this happens. Like any good businesswoman, she has simply placed her bets on several horses at the same time, so as to ensure victory no matter what.

I would therefore be interested in hearing what the remaining candidates –- Noynoy and Bro Eddie, in particular –- have to say about how they plan to make these perpetrators accountable. A lackadaisical pandering to popularity and big money, which would entail a presidential pardon, is non-negotiable, at least in so far as my personal vote is concerned. The massacre is simply far too gruesome and unprecedented to remain unpunished.

Hope for the future

GMA recently signed Republic Act 9851, which is widely regarded as a milestone for human rights:


Of course, “w
ith a reported 1,013 extra-judicial killings, 202 enforced disappearances, 223 political prisoners, and 1,036 incidences of torture since 2001, the Arroyo regime's record rivals that of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos and has drawn sharp criticism from the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Karapatan national human rights alliance group.” Oplan Bantay Laya alone, the government’s anti-insurgency programme, has already led to the loss of hundreds of human lives. How the government will deal with the issue of command responsibility over crimes against humanity (such as the Ampatuan massacre), which is specified in the law, remains to be seen.

There have been a number of other initiatives as well, although many have yet to be passed into law. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago recently presented Senate Bill Number (SBN) 1861 in the Senate (An Act Defining and Penalizing Crimes Against International Humanitarian Law and Other Serious International Crimes, Adopting Corresponding Principles of Criminal Responsibility Applying Universal Jurisdiction):

SBN 2669, which has yet to be approved as well, further aims to define and penalize crimes against international humanitarian law: the bill consolidates Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s bill with SBN 1446 by Senator Richard Gordon, SBN 583 by Senator Jinggoy Estrada, SBN 1542 by Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri and SBN 2589 by Senator Manny Villar. The counterpart bills in the Lower House include HBN 1748 by Representative Roilo Golez, HBN 2591 by Representative Simeon Datumanong and HBN 3002 by Representative Rufus Rodriguez.

So: the legislative efforts at the national level are apparently there. But the point is that
the new law (RA 9851), at least in spirit and intent, will theoretically protect the rights and security of innocent civilians who are exposed to internal armed conflicts (that is, if the executive branch and its generals are ready to enforce the law against themselves). There’s the rub, see...

International options

In fact, we’ve had a pretty weak record internationally when it comes to international human rights and humanitarian law. Now Leila de Lima, whom I respect greatly (although I would argue that her energies are best spent not on unnecessary worry about Andal, Jr having been bonked on the head by an overly animated journalist), has said that, if this case is not adequately resolved by Philippine courts, the Commission on Human Rights will not hesitate to present it to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague. I could not make sense of the reference simply because the ICJ deals with conflicts between states, while the International Criminal Court (ICC) deal with conflicts within them. Clearly, this is an intra-state issue and not an inter-state one, in which case the appropriate body would be the ICC.

The Philippines
has signed the Rome Statute to the ICC but regrettably has not ratified it. To his credit, Erap did sign the treaty but, when GMA came into power in 2001, she did not give the Senate the opportunity to ratify it. Her government reportedly did not want to become a member because of fears that allegations of human rights violations might be made against them in international tribunals. But the even more compelling reason, of course, has to do with our symbiotic ties to the US.
More specifically, the American Servicemen Protection Act stipulates that countries that have become members of the ICC will no longer receive US military aid. In addition, any government that detains an American soldier and files a case against him/her before the ICC has to be prepared for the fact that the US will undertake military action to free its soldier. Clearly this is about currying favor in order to obtain US aid, on the one hand, just as it demonstrates the masterful strategies the US tends to deploy in matters of bilateral “exchange,” on the other.

The only other international option for now appears to be the UN Human Rights Council, specifically the International Protocol to the
International Covenant to Civil and Political Rights: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrc/procedure.htm

While it arguably has limited enforcement mechanisms,
several countries have already amended their laws as a result of decisions made by the Committee. In a number of cases, prisoners have been released and compensation paid to victims of human rights violations. In 1990, the Committee instituted a mechanism to assist it in monitoring more closely whether states parties have given effect to its final decisions, and it has been encouraging to note that they have been largely cooperative.

Of course, the Covenant requires that domestic remedies be first exhausted. In this case, therefore, the Philippines would have the obligation to prosecute the perpetrators of the massacre to begin with. If the convictions are deemed inadequate, any injured parties (survivors, relatives of loved ones) would have the right to present their case before the international body. Karen Vertido, a victim of an alleged rape in 1996, for example, eventually chose to present her case to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) after the presiding judge in the Philippines decided to acquit her attacker. While the case remains pending for now, it will eventually be resolved, reminding us that this is an option available to ordinary citizens all over the world. Technically, a strong case could be made not for genocide or state-sponsored violence, but for designating the Ampatuan massacre as a crime against humanity.

Additional recommendations:

1.) An examination of the massacre case files suggests that there had been systemic favoritism towards the Ampatuans and government mishandling throughout. Indeed, had so many journalists not fallen – had the victims “merely” been Muslims, say -- the public outcry might not have been quite as vociferous. Education and training programmes for trial court judges and government personnel (specifically for victims of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, dealing with threats from the accused and cultural impartiality in general) are therefore clearly necessary. A monitoring system for trial court decisions in cases of rido and human rights atrocities should also be established to ensure their compliance with human rights conventions. Data on the number of such cases filed in prosecution offices and the courts should also be compiled and analyzed. It is further recommended that victims be provided with the right to appeal in cases of acquittal that are anchored on discriminatory grounds.

2.) Training of medical, police and military personnel is equally critical because valuable forensic evidence in this case was lost or mishandled due to a lack of technical skill. Funds will have to be allocated for providing this training since effective forensics work is at the forefront of the battle against impunity. The conditions that would allow the enforcement of the law -- its
enabling environment, as it were -- are not yet entirely in place. While additional laws could and should be passed, it is clear that we have a serious law enforcement problem as well.

The material conditions in the criminal justice system are as important, if not more so, than the mere promulgation of laws. The salaries of legal, military and medical personnel should therefore be commensurate with the type of work they routinely put in every day: otherwise, they may simply resort to corruption in order to survive. As they (trial lawyers in particular) are at the front lines of law enforcement, they should be considered to be a priority. Establishing such a system is crucial so that human rights cannot be arbitrarily ignored in cases where the government does not support the victim. Examining the process of implementating laws is even more important, in many ways, than solely monitoring legislation itself.

4.) To what can the backlog in the courts be attributed? Could more cases be turned over to the lower courts? I would be grateful for some feedback here…

5.) Education is equally vital, and the reassessment of school curricula and textbooks in terms of violence and respect for human rights may be necessary. In Muslim areas, tolerance for the realities of
rido should be re-examined, just as stereotypes about Muslims in mainstream texts should be carefully scrutinized as well. How are Muslims represented in these different contexts and what alternatives to rido are presented? Do they take into account indigenous cultures, on the one hand, and international mechanisms for conflict negotiation, on the other? Rido between two pro-government Muslim clans, on the one hand, and between an insurgent group like Abu Sayyaf and a pro-government group (whether Muslim or Christian), on the other, will also have to be clearly distinguished in these texts and in public perception itself.

6.) The Mindanao civil society statement is fairly comprehensive, and addresses such issues as the
disarmament of the CVOs, the total disbanding of the private armies of all political clans, and the call for government to uphold the constitutional provisions that ban private armed groups: http://durianpost.wordpress.com/2009/12/02/mindanao-civil-society-statement-on-the-ampatuan-massacre/

7.) Truth and reconciliation commissions have gone a long way in healing post-conflict societies like Rwanda, El Salvador and South Africa. They could theoretically have a profound impact on Philippine society because they can potentially open the national dialogue on impunity:

8.) Zero tolerance for bribery at all levels of society -- whether they are being made or accepted by lawmakers, the judiciary, government employees, candidates for public office, or members of the military and police. Media watchdogs, as well as NGOs such as Transparency International, need to highlight such exchanges as and when they happen so the public can make its own assessments. For its part, the public needs to resist the temptation to accept bribes and to choose candidates that are merely entertaining and appealing for superficial reasons. Candidates that are known for their corruption and lack of respect for human rights, however attractive, should be regarded with wariness because they are likely to recommit these self-same crimes in future contexts.

9.) Ideally, zero tolerance for impunity should be the hallmark of the next administration. Failing this, however, it is up to civil society to peacefully demonstrate in public rallies or in petitions and in the blogosphere, etc, to make sure their voices are heard. At a certain point, the government will have to take the sheer numbers into account and respond accordingly.

The Filipino-American contribution

It should be noted that the US would prefer to push for charter change because 100% foreign ownership of Philippine companies is in its interests, as opposed to the mere 40% the current Constitution allows. The US military is also primarily Republican and will no doubt support the candidate who is pro-VFA. Put rather bluntly, the potential exchange of funds from the former to the latter could be fairly sizeable indeed.

In view of the global economic crisis, the US, China and others are obviously looking for resources all over the world as well. It should be noted that the
metallic deposits in Mindanao include lead, zinc, ore, iron, copper, chromite, magnetite and gold; in fact, gold mined in the region accounts for nearly half of the national gold reserves. Mindanao also has significant oil and natural gas reserves. It therefore comes as no surprise that foreign companies have had their eye on it for some time. The fact that conflict is being fomented so as to spur the US-led global arms trade is a remote (if somewhat unthinkable) possibility. Either way, the Philippines in general, and Mindanao in particular, are strategically and geopolitically critical for the US in terms of such concerns as global terrorism (Abu Sayyaf/MILF at home, Jemah Islamiyah next door, and links to Wahabi Islam in the Middle East, a region that can be directly accessed by unpatrolled waterways in the Philippines) and the threat of China in the region, for example.

So it would make sense if the US candidate of choice were Gibo, not on the merits of his person but because of where he stands ideologically in reference to the US. But since Gibo is heavily implicated in the arms caches and private armies in Maguindanao and elsewhere, and since he has supported GMA throughout (never having once criticized her), the issue is no longer about parliamentary change but about GMA’s ambitions, which we cannot allow to flourish. Fil-Am groups in the US have petitioned for $2b of the $33b in military aid to the Philippines to be
tied to human rights. But since we do require arms for our own geopolitical and internal security, perhaps it might make more sense to request that
all aid be tied to human rights. In other words, could we make an acceptable human rights record a prerequisite for US aid in general, whether military or otherwise?

11.) Instead of direct aid alone, perhaps the US could loan equipment to the Philippine military with a maintenance agreement (i.e., the US could maintain the inventory, audit and maintenance contract, for example). This way, the Philippines would get the equipment but would be unable to sell it on the black market. This is an urgent concern because many of the arms used by warlords, as well as by the MILF and Abu Sayyaf, are often sold on the black market by rogue members of the Philippine military (as may well be the case with the Ampatuans). The Philippines could then pay a small maintenance cost and in turn would get continued upgrades in terms of equipment and technology.

12.) An independent investigation into the massacre is urgently needed, in view of the very real possibilities of a whitewash, as Rep Howard Berman’s recent US Congressional bill has demanded:

13.) Independent monitors on the ground before and during the upcoming elections will also be critical to minimize widespread cheating. Fil-Ams and the international community as a whole should continue to press for this.

14.) While the Philippines greatly appreciates the support provided by the US and other countries after typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng, what is really needed in the long-term is the transfer of technology and know-how to the country. Helping us develop cutting-edge innovations and technologies -- through education, training and technology transfer -- would make us more genuinely competitive in the global market. This technology will naturally have to take into account the realities of the tropics and the specificities of Philippine conditions.

For instance, the former Subic base could be used as an investment conduit for the US and foreign private sector with a preference for small-medium green-tech solution projects (manufacturing and research, etc), targeting specific regions with additional livelihood programmes. This would allow the Philippines to leap-frog industrialization and make the regions more autonomous from the main power corporations currently supplying the entire country.

A final word.
Fareed Zakaria would describe the Philippines to be an “illiberal democracy.” As he points out, the bedrock on which democracy is built -- constitutional liberalism or the rule of law as the centrepiece of social organization itself — is far more foundationally important than voting and mere elections. We do, in fact, have a fairly decent Constitution and set of laws (although some revisions would not be unwelcome) but are ultimately weak in matters of enforcement. This is because dictatorship, impunity and corruption have tended to supersede the rule of law.

We cannot have the kind of economic development Zakaria deems necessary for the lessening of human rights violations if our leaders keep pocketing the spoils. As he so aptly put it in “The Future of Freedom”: “Modern democracies will face difficult new challenges -- fighting terrorism, adjusting to globalization, adapting to an aging society – and they will have to make their system work much better than it currently does. That means making democratic decision-making effective, reintegrating constitutional liberalism into the practice of democracy, rebuilding broken political institutions and civic associations. Perhaps most difficult of all, it requires that those with immense power in our societies embrace their responsibilities, lead and set standards that are not only legal, but
moral. Without this inner stuffing, democracy will become an empty shell, not simply inadequate but potentially dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the manipulation of freedom, and the decay of common life.”

It is high time we chose leaders who would not allow democracy to become yet another empty shell, who have the inner stuffing to choose what is ethical over what is lucrative, and who would frown upon impunity as a crime against the ancestors who built our nation, the history that forged our consciousness and humanity as a whole.

Image: Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, 1490s, parcel-gilt bronze, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence: http://www.cartage.org.lb/en/themes/arts/scultpureplastic/sculpture/bigphotos/A/hercules.jpg

Monday, November 9, 2009

Of Arms and the Man: the global arms trade and the Philippine context

In this day and age of things unprecedented -- where climate change, economic recession, H1N1 fears and global poverty continuously assault our weary and shell-shocked senses with every passing minute -- one thing that rarely gets talked about, except in the tiniest enclaves, is the global arms trade. Many may not know this, but the global arms trade now produces a death a minute.1 In fact, 2.1 million people -- or 2,000 every day – have already died as a result of armed violence.2 Light weapons continue to remain the principal cause of death in conflicts around the world, and the vast majority of casualties happen to be civilians.3 If you didn’t already know all this, you actually have an excuse, because this is regrettably a subject that commands far too little attention.


“the Philippines ranks 10th in the list of countries across the globe with the highest number of gun-related killings”


Today, the global arms trade accounts for over $55 billion, and is the second largest international trading market after narcotics. Principal sellers are the US, Russia, Italy, Germany, France, Britain and China; it is no small coincidence that these countries also happen to have the largest defense budgets in the world. But the US has long dominated this global market: it is by far the largest exporter in the world, selling more weapons than the next 14 exporting countries combined. U.S. firms exported arms valued at $37.8 billion in 2008, over 68 percent of all global business. The US was also number one in the arms bazaar to developing nations, with $29.6 billion in conventional weapons agreements or more than 70 percent of the world's total, according to a recent U.S. government report.4 And if all this is not disturbing enough, NGOs have further calculated that the cost of armed violence to Africa alone is $19 billion per year.5

Each year, at least a third of a million people are killed directly with conventional weapons, while many more are injured, abused, forcibly displaced and bereaved as a result of armed violence.6 In armed conflicts, the lives of skilled people are lost; infrastructure such as schools, clinics and homes are destroyed; economic production and markets are affected and investment takes flight. Even outside wartime, government arms purchases often exceed legitimate security needs, diverting substantial amounts of money away from health and education. In ‘peace time,’ the presence and availability of arms often intensifies violence engendered by crime, political protest, social disputes and violence within the home.

While many of the weapons used to commit violations are produced locally, large proportions are sourced from the international arms market. Those involved in the global arms trade legitimately supply munitions for national self-defense, peacekeeping and law enforcement. Regrettably, however, some governments and arms dealers also provide arms to other governments and armed groups that persistently violate the most basic human rights (http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/sierraleone/breakingnews.html).

Towards a sea-change

Because of the scale and urgency of the problem, Nobel Peace laureates have been petitioning for the formation of an Arms Trade Treaty since 2003. By 2006, diplomats at the United Nations had officially recognized the need for a treaty that would limit an international arms trade that continued to burgeon with vertiginous speed. But the US, under the bellicose administration of Bush ‘43, had been opposing negotiations since their inception.

In a landmark decision last week,7 however, the US voted, for the first time (and to the exhilaration of many), to support talks on the UN-sponsored treaty.8 This is consistent with its recent efforts to achieve international nuclear disarmament -- another shocker for an international community long-inured to US resistance to the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and any number of international agreements. Since the US contributes 25% of the UN budget, its support of this initiative is critical. Spearheaded by Britain and with 153 votes out of 192 in support of the treaty (with 19 abstentions and one rejection), the signs are almost encouraging.9

So who are the spoilers who might inhibit international consensus? Among the abstainers were Russia, China, India and Pakistan -- arms producers, all -- who wanted further discussion before serious negotiations could begin, suggesting that the process to be voted on in 2012 will be a long and drawn-out one. Most nations in the Middle East abstained, but nearly all countries in Africa and Latin America voted in favor. Zimbabwe, which cast the sole negative vote on the resolution, has long been accused of using weapons as a means of state repression.

But perhaps UN meetings on the arms trade have been unusually heated this month because recent events in Guinea (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8280603.stm) -- where government forces opened fire on thousands of peaceful protesters (leading to a death toll of 157) -- were on the forefront of many people’s minds. The memory of the recent war on Gaza, where white phosphorus (http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/01/12/white.phosphorus/index.html) and other munitions produced in the US had been used by the Israeli army on innocent civilians -- clear violations of international law -- had also yet to fade. Still, the hanging question remained: how will consensus be achieved, if at all?

Carrots and sticks, for the most part, the usual diplomatic parlay, with bilateral agreements between countries being fattened up or pared down as necessary. The US, of course, is a master of the fine art of bilateral negotiations and invariably gets to make the choicest pickings.

Of the abstentions, the two countries that are particularly worrisome are Russia and China. As one might expect, the US will not agree to scale down its activities if these two countries don’t agree to do the same. It can’t after all be expected to jeopardize its own national security. We shall have to monitor how negotiations pan out in the coming months.

The Philippines

So how does all this affect a country like the Philippines? Well, as it happens, the Philippines ranks 10th in the list of countries across the globe with the highest number of gun-related killings.10 Colombia has the highest number with 50 deaths per 100,000 people in a year, while the Philippines -- the only Asian country in the top 20 list -- has 9.64 deaths per 100,000 people. With more gun-related deaths than any other country in Asia relative to its size, the Philippines clearly needs tougher gun control laws, given the fact that the number of illegal weapons has now topped one million. More than half of the estimated 2 million revolvers, pistols, shotguns and assault rifles in the Philippines are believed to be unregistered and illegal.11 More critically, about 70% of small arms are in the hands of civilians, while 80% of all illegal weapons are concentrated in restive provinces on the southern island of Mindanao -- Basilan, Jolo and Tawi-tawi.12 Gun-related violence, of course, is also expected in the run-up to next year’s presidential election, the rather ineffectual “total gun ban” declared by the Commission on Elections notwithstanding. Equally critical, the government continues to lose millions of dollars in taxes and duties because of the illegal gun trade.

National police chief Jesus Versoza rightly recommends stiffer penalties for those breaking gun laws (since Filipinos “haveFont size a cultural propensity for owning guns”),13 but neglects to mention the poor enforcement record of some police officials, as well as the fact that small arms have made their way to Mindanao and the international black market because of a few rotten apples in law enforcement, who continue to sell arms to rebel groups.

The US, of course, has adjusted accordingly: because of concerns relating to human rights abuses (raised by both the UN and the Fil-Am community in the US), the Obama government has decided to withhold $2 million earmarked for military aid.14 But this withdrawal obviously has to do with some of the excesses of GMA’s government, and may therefore shift with the next administration. But where the new government will stand on the VFA and the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty will undoubtedly determine the level of military aid and armament we receive from the US. This, too, is another development worth watching.

Suppliers to the Philippines

So where do most of the arms arriving on our fragile and beleaguered shores actually hail from? The proliferation not only of loose weaponry, but also of an increasingly sophisticated arsenal at this point (http://manilabaywatch.blogspot.com/2008/08/update-paf-c-130-crash-did-milf-vshorad.html), appears to have stemmed from several main sources: one of the most important has been the overseas pipelines run by the separatist MNLF and the breakaway MILF, based mainly among the Maguindanao and Maranao populations of south-central Mindanao.

The 1970s saw the first and largest influx of modern weaponry into the region. At the outset of the insurgency, this included several thousand Libyan-donated Belgian rifles, as well as mortars and Soviet-manufactured rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Libya also facilitated the supply of Kalashnikov assault rifles, although only a few hundred of a much larger shipment ever reached the MNLF.

However, both insurgent and government forces have overwhelmingly fought with US-manufactured weapons, rather than with the communist-bloc equipment used in the Cold War cockpits of Cambodia and Afghanistan. It remains to be confirmed, but it is probable that both the MNLF and MILF were able to import supplies of US material abandoned in Vietnam after the communist victory of 1975 and later sold on the international arms market.

Other reported sources of imported weaponry have been North Korea and the black market in southern Thailand, as well as China, Germany, Israel and Pakistan.

Yet another source has been local MILF production itself. Finally, limited quantities of firearms have reached Mindanao from Luzon and the Visayas in what essentially represents a spillover from the thriving arms black-market in the northern part of the Philippines.15

The implications of an Arms Trade Treaty

As of this writing, competition for military influence in the Philippines is heating up, with both the US and China making new pledges of funds, arms and equipment to help modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines.16 If the treaty fails to reach a consensus, then this is likely to escalate in favor of China. If a consensus is reached, on the other hand, then both countries will be required to follow certain limitations, in which case rogue states that are not signatories to the treaty (such as North Korea, for instance) could well dominate the black market altogether. This obviously does not bode well for the future of the country (since terrorist and insurgent groups could capitalize on this development), which is why the treaty is far more important than many may realize. Another grim reality with the UN system is that many countries pay lip service to such international agreements all the time, even as they continue to flout them at the national level.

The treaty as it stands also has several limitations: for one thing, it doesn’t impinge in any way on the right of states to purchase and acquire weapons for self defense. It also does not affect civilian ownership, since it would only regulate international arms transfers. Clearly, then, domestic laws -- and, perhaps even more importantly, their enforcement -- are equally critical if the problem is to be addressed in a systemic way. The issues of civilian ownership, the registration and test-firing of guns, and the imposition of the stiffest possible penalties for military personnel trading these arms on the local or international black market still need to be addressed under national law. But it is fervently hoped that an amended form of the treaty will pass consensus so international arms transfers can eventually be scaled down, with national governments responding accordingly.

Perhaps the new jihad code espoused by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group points to a new direction in dealing with global conflict (http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/africa/11/09/libya.jihadi.code/). Indeed, with the recent discovery of a brutal beheading in Jolo,17 the massacre of 46 civilians in Maguindanao by a politician's private army (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8375588.stm), on the eve of Hillary Clinton’s arrival in Manila and with a potentially violent election period ahead -- not to mention an international political climate that has become increasingly incendiary in a number of regions -- the stakes for us all could not be any higher.

N.B. Please note that this is not only copyrighted material; it is also being considered for publication. 


1 The Independent, 2003

2 Oxfam, 2008

3 ICRC, 2008

4 Huffington Post, 2009

5 Oxfam, 2009

6 Control Arms, 2008

7 30 October 2009

8 http://geneva.usmission.gov/2009/10/14/armstradetreaty/

9 http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSTRE59T4QN20091030

10 International Action Network on Small Arms, 2008

11 Reuters, 2009

12 IRIN, 2009

13 Asia World, 2009

14 http://www.businessmirror.com.ph/home/nation/18232-us-scraps-2-million-military-aid.html

15 Jane’s Strategic Advisory Service, 2008

16 Asia World, 2008

17 http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/nation/view/20091110-235292/Abu-Sayyaf-behead-Jolo-head-teacher