Moments after Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III finished his final State of the Nation Address today before Congress, a group of left-wing legislators in the audience unfurled a protest banner that read: “human rights violator.”
However one feels about Aquino’s personal responsibility for ongoing human rights violations in the Philippines, it’s hard to deny their existence. That’s why Aquino’s miserable failure to even discuss the Philippines’ many pressing human rights problems in his speech is so troubling.
Instead, Aquino spoke for more than two hours on such issues as his administration’s accomplishments on the economy, education, and the peace process in Mindanao. Aquino drew applause for promising a bill outlawing political dynasties. He also recounted in detail the many shortcomings of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and thanked everyone from his political allies to his housemaid and hairdresser.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, Aquino barely touched on any of the serious human rights problems his administration has largely ignored since he took office in 2010. That omission adds insult to injury to the many victims of the government’s failure to adequately grapple with those issues. The closest he came to acknowledging human rights was his mention of the arrest of retired Gen. Jovito Palparan, who is on trial for the enforced disappearance of two activists.
More Filipinos will likely pay a heavy price for the failure to press for greater accountability for alleged abuses by the state security forces. The cost of that failure will be a rising body count from extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance, and torture.
Aquino won the 2010 election on a political platform that included explicit human rights commitments and a promise to tackle the lack of accountability for the military and police. But unless Aquino finds his voice on human rights as he begins his last year in office ahead of the next presidential election in May 2016, those promises may remain empty rhetoric.
Carlos H. Conde is the Philippines researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.