[PHOTO - President Benigno Aquino III delivers his message before a big crowd of Students and government officials during the celebration for his first year in office Thursday, June 30, 2011 in suburban Pasig City east of Manila, Philippines. During his campaign for president, Benigno Aquino III pledged to end serious violations of human rights in the Philippines. Yet since taking office on June 30, 2010, the Philippine military continues to be implicated in apparently politically-motivated extrajudicial killings—deliberate unlawful killings by state security forces—and enforced disappearances. (Photo: Pat Roque - AP)]

NEW YORK, APRIL 1, 2012 (TRIBUNE) By Michaela P. del Callar - He promised to dismantle the paramilitary forces being used by politicians as their private armies during his presidential campaign, but like all other campaign pledges, President Aquino again failed to deliver and has been slammed for it.

A prominent human rights watchdog yesterday admonished Aquino for backtracking on a campaign promise to dismantle paramilitary forces being used as private armies by politicians and blamed for the continuing election violence in the country.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Aquino to live up to his commitment and ban paramilitaries or government-armed civilians in the Philippines “because of their long and continuing history of serious human rights violations.”

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

The group’s criticism on Aquino is one of the strongest international rebukes to date of inconsistencies in his policies which human rights watchdogs view with alarm.

When Aquino campaigned for the presidency in the 2010 elections, HRW said he promised to revoke Executive Order 546, signed by former President Gloria Arroyo in 2006, which paved the way for the arming of civilian volunteer organizations.

In one of his campaign speeches, HRW recalled Aquino as saying: “Never again will public funds be used to support and maintain a private security force.”

But in a dialog with journalists in November 2010, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said “the President is not yet prepared to really heed the call for the scrapping of EO 546” and that he was still studying the proposal.

Aquino, HRW said, also backtracked publicly in November 2010, saying that he was not in favor of dismantling military-supervised paramilitary groups, and that getting rid of them “is not the solution.” He said paramilitaries will be used to protect civilians against communist and Muslim insurgents.

Then in October 2011, Aquino made another announcement, saying paramilitary groups would be used this time to help protect mining companies from attacks by insurgent groups.

HRW expressed concern that many members of these volunteer groups, also referred to by the government as “force multipliers,” initially equipped only with a baton and flashlight are now being armed with firearms on selective basis.

The paramilitary forces were used by the politicians as their private armies, especially in Maguindanao as well as other parts of the country where the Cafgus are a presence.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines is also being used as a private army, usually of the Malacañang tenant.

At this time, the Hacienda Luisita, owned and operated by the Aquino-Cojuangco family is being used to sow violence against the farmer tenants, as evidenced recently.

It is usual that the paramilitary forces serve as the private armies of politicians in power and position.

In the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, the paramilitary forces serve the ARMM officials who are allied with the President and Malacañang.

It is suspected that once again, the paramilitary forces will be utilized for the elections in 2013, not only to sow electoral violence but also to ensure the victory of the Aquino administration’s candidates.

Paramilitary members had been tagged in the November 2009 massacre of 58 people, mostly journalists, in Maguindanao province, in one of the worst election-related violence to date in the Philippines.

The human rights group lamented that alleged abuses by paramilitary force members “are rarely investigated or prosecuted, creating a climate of impunity that encourages further violations.”

Aquino administration officials had announced a plan to dismantle private armies ahead of the local elections in 2013, but HRW said this should also include state-backed paramilitaries.

“Elections in the Philippines are often bloody, with the violence mainly carried out by warring political factions with the support of private armies and state-backed paramilitaries,” it said.

HRW pointed out that Philippine law “fails to regulate fully and transparently the recruitment, payment, supervision, training, and structure of paramilitary forces.” These groups include the Civilian Armed Force Geographical Units (Cafgud), the Special Cafgu Active Auxiliary, Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVOs), and Police Auxiliary Units.

The Aquino government claims that paramilitary forces are now better trained and better regulated than in the past.

Unconvinced, 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, it said 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.

“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.”

Earlie, Malacañang claimed it started its crackdown on private armed groups not only in the ARMM but in the entire country as well.

“We’re going around the entire country (in the crackdown on private armies),” Aquino said during a lull in his meeting with Cabinet and Commission on Elections (Comelec) officials to tackle the possibility of holding a re-registration of voters in ARMM.

According to the President, a certain “Kalinga” group has been neutralized and that there had been arrests of “quite a number of people identified with this private armed group, cases filed and firearms confiscated.”

He likewise pointed out that in Abra, which is a known hotbed of political violence, “we are told that there is a market diminution of the violence normally being experienced in the area.”

Mr. Aquino further claimed that the purge has just started.

“It’s quite an extensive list (of private armies) and I’ve tasked the Philippine National Police (PNP) specifically to continue its efforts to remove all of these private armed groups that exist – not only the ARMM,” he said.

But the same so-called private armies are composed of the armed paramilitary forces whom the politicians tap.

Aquino has already stated that the paramilitary forces, known as the Cagfus, are not to be dismantled.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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