(This is the conclusion portion of the International Crisis Group Update Briefing issued December 21, 2009 on the Maguindanao Massacre in the Philippines last November 23. 2009)
OPPORTUNITIES AND DANGERS
Horrific as it was, the Maguindanao massacre opens a window of opportunity for the Philippines to make progress on justice, security and peace. They are all related: advances on justice for the victims of the massacre would aid the security situation and help the peace process, but likewise any setback on one could harm the others. Progress, however, will require a concerted effort by the government, civil society, the MILF and the international community.
The massacre case could be turned into a model of how justice can be improved in the Philippines. Every effort should be made to build the strongest possible case against the suspects, to ensure that those responsible for the planning and execution of the killings are convicted and kept in prison for a very long time. The justice department should actively seek – and donor countries with the relevant expertise should offer – assistance in forensic analysis, case preparation and tracing the remaining fugitives. Given the fear of retaliation by the Ampatuan family, help in protecting witnesses, judges, lawyers and prosecutors is particularly important.
The assistance should extend not just to the murder charges, but also to other possible charges that the government could bring, including illegal possession of weapons; plunder; election fraud; perjury; and failure to protect citizens from human rights violations. Offers of international assistance to the interior and local governments department in analyzing money transfers and auditing the use of local government funds (IRAs) could be particularly helpful. If handled properly, the prosecution of this case could generate sustained public pressure to make not just local Mindanao officials, but also officials across the country more accountable for their actions.
The government should pay particular attention to prison security, to ensure not only that those detained do not escape, but also that visitors are properly screened and that the Ampatuans and their private militia members do not have any influence over other prisoners. At the same time, given the abuses that often occur in the Philippine penal system, it is important that the suspects, including CVOs, be given no cause to claim inhumane treatment, either during their pre-trial detention, or if they are convicted, during their imprisonment. Some outside assistance might be in order here, as well.
The government should systematically follow through on every other reported killing linked to the Ampatuan family, so that the full extent of its crimes becomes known, in the interests of reducing warlordism and advancing understanding where and why justice failed in the past. Technical assistance or on-the-job training to the justice department from donors may be necessary to make it happen.
One of the weakest aspects of the Philippine justice system is its slowness. It would help for the government, perhaps in conjunction with the Commission on Human Rights, to set performance goals for the prosecution, so there is a clear timeline for getting this case to trial as expeditiously as possible. Donors could help by funding an independent evaluation, perhaps in cooperation with Manila’s leading law faculties, of how well those goals were met as well as where and why they were not.
There is widespread concern in the ARMM area that even this affair, as extraordinarily brutal as it was, will fall off the front pages as the 2010 elections heat up, and it is important to do everything possible to keep it front and centre. Given the number of their colleagues killed, the Philippines media could help keep the case in the public eye by a box on the front pages of newspapers or a spot on the screen during evening news broadcasts documenting how many days have passed in the quest for justice for the victims. MindaNews, an online news service about Mindanao, has set an example with its “Countdown for Justice”, marking the time that has elapsed without result in the earlier slaying of its photo editor. It has now been 60 months.
Foreign governments could encourage the Philippines government to move forward with its declared intention of freezing assets of those suspected and later convicted. Foreign governments – the U.S. would be particularly important – could reinforce the move by freezing any assets held abroad and placing the suspects on an immigration blacklist.
The Philippines government could build on the outrage over the massacre to end all private and local funding of police and military auxiliaries, including special CAFGUs; it is a major factor in the creation of private armies. It could move to assert far stricter control over procurement and issuance of firearms. It also needs to find ways of permanently dismantling civilian militias and meeting security needs with professional forces. President Arroyo should immediately revoke Executive Order 546 as one concrete step to prevent a recurrence of a massacre involving CVOs. The use of village guards or any other civilian group as “force multipliers” should be stopped.
The international community, especially those governments involved in supporting the peace process and economic development in Mindanao, should keep the government under pressure to ensure that the commitment to dismantling private armies becomes more than rhetoric. The rationale for armed civilian militias, both the army-led CAFGUs and the CVOs, was that the official security forces were inadequate to cope with the insurgent threat. Now is the time to commission an in-depth study by independent analysts to see what the real security needs are and how to meet them without relying on civilians, so that at least this rationale can be eliminated. Of course, a key way to reduce the need for reliance on civilian forces would be to reach a lasting peace with the MILF, although the armed forces are also engaged in combating other insurgencies.
The government and donor agencies could use the outrage over the massacre to give serious attention to professionalizing the police, using Maguindanao province as a test case, but they will have to move rapidly. An emergency plan for screening and retraining this force should be considered, even though it is not the only one tainted by warlordism; the problem is endemic in the Philippines. But the corruption of the force may have gone further in Maguindanao than elsewhere, and a wholesale review of recruitment, training, promotion and weapons acquisition would be useful.
The government could also use the publicity generated by the massacre to put in place far stricter oversight mechanisms for weapons procurement more generally. A retired police officer listed several ways in which firearms can be illegally acquired: surreptitiously doubling or tripling the number certified by the foreign affairs department for purchase; saving and recycling old arms that are supposed to be scrapped when new ones are purchased; selling or absconding with weapons used as evidence in criminal cases; manipulation of “end user certificates” so that the person who is supposed to be vetted for purchase is fictitious; smuggling through customs; and importing customized weapons through gun clubs which are then made available to militias. Easy circulation of firearms compounds the problem of private armies.
As noted above, the MILF and the government have an unusual opportunity to demonstrate that they can work together in pursuing the armed members of CVOs and ensuring that they either surrender or are captured. It would be a huge feat to dismantle the Ampatuan army together, and the MILF can only gain by doing so, especially in the communities most hostile to it. The army’s embrace of the new Civilian Protection Component, in its operations in Maguindanao as well as more generally in its operations outside the ARMM, would also be a step forward.
These, then, are the opportunities. The tragedy of the massacre in Maguindanao will be compounded if they are not be pursued.