Sunday, December 15, 2013

Blame games

Here in the city of Toronto, the mayor appears unbreakable. In other cities, notably Montreal, allegations of misbehaviour in office, whether corruption-related or simply fundamental flaws of character are enough to induce a sitting public official to resign. But Toronto Mayor Rob Ford seems impervious to criticism and public clamour for him to step down because of acts unbecoming of a mayor of the largest Canadian city. There is always the media which he holds responsible for portraying him as Canada’s poster boy for politicians misbehaving in public.

In Manila, 8,206 miles away from Toronto, the media also happens to be the bane of existence for the sitting president. President Noynoy Aquino continues to suffer from an almost innate aversion to bad news, especially from newspaper columnists who disapprove of the way he handles one crisis after another, whether it is political or caused by natural disasters.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Philippine President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III.
When President Noynoy Aquino ordered the Sultan of Sulu to surrender his troops to the Malaysian military during a failed bloody incursion in Sabah last February 2013, he was criticized for his failure to weigh in the loss of Filipino lives. Instead of acting like a true statesman who would first consider the option of peacefully negotiating with a foreign country, President Aquino reacted in a way as if he was serving a foreign government instead of his own.

Then an earthquake shattered most of Bohol in October, and two weeks later, Super Typhoon Category 5 Haiyan almost erased Leyte and Samar from the country’s map. Every time the country faces a crisis, President Aquino has always displayed a ghostlike sense of hopelessness and lack of preparation and decisiveness as a leader. When Typhoon Haiyan struck, Aquino didn’t have the faintest idea of what to do and simply criticized the foreign press who parachuted to the country for continuously harping on the absence of government on the ground to help, rescue and provide aid to the typhoon victims. He blamed the local governments who were to his little mind the first line of defence, regardless that they too have been swept away by the typhoon. Even the estimates of the number of deaths were doubted as unnaturally too high. President Aquino expected the death toll not to go higher than 2,500, which he confidently told the world during a CNN interview. To date, the death toll stands over 7,000.

Amidst coping with natural disasters, President Aquino has also been losing his political battles. The Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), the much-maligned pork barrel which the President uses as a carrot and stick to keep members of Congress follow his line, had been struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. Next will be his own Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) fund which the Supreme Court is also expected to declare as without legal basis and a violation of the constitutional separation of powers.

When there’s no one to blame, attribute it to the media. Most people today are skeptical of the media, especially the major newspapers whose columnists are perceived to be the ones manufacturing the news, not the actual events or issues that give rise to stories. Newspapers are full of opinions that their readers are not sure where they stand on the issues, or at best, whether to believe the opinions expressed by the pundits as the news on the ground.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford relies on his loyal following called the Ford Nation, voters who are mostly from the suburbs, working class, and recent immigrants. In the case of President Aquino, he has the yellow media, journalists loyal to his mother, former President Cory Aquino, and is perceived to be supported by business oligarchs. Both bailiwicks, whether the Ford Nation or Aquino’s yellow media, suffer from a malady of deniability. To them, everything in the press that disparages their hero has no semblance of the truth, even if the argument is overwhelmingly against them.

On the strength of his Ford Nation, Mayor Rob Ford, although reduced to a mere titular head by his own council, intends to run for re-election so he could get back his old powers as city mayor. President Aquino, on the other hand, while damaged by his own inept leadership during the country’s several crises, continues to ride on the weight of the legacy of his more popular parents that he still is the best qualified to rid the country of all forms of corruption despite allegations of dishonesty within his own government.

It is easy to blame the media if there is a bit of perception left in the public mind that your leaders are still popular and could be trusted with their leadership. With a rambunctious Ford Nation and a well-oiled and positioned yellow media, it is not surprising that both Ford and Aquino are still in power despite gasping for political oxygen.

Understanding the roots of this conundrum, whether in Toronto or Manila must start with a correct analysis, instead of simply focusing on the personalities of the characters involved. Mayor Ford misbehaving publicly is easily explainable. Admittedly, Ford has committed horrific and shameful acts unbecoming of a mayor, but the city council is powerless to depose him, or even ask him to resign as the most honourable thing to do under the circumstances. Unless he commits a crime and is sentenced to spend time in jail, or be absent for a continuous period of time in council, there’s nothing council can do to impeach him. In retrospect, the Ontario provincial parliament that enacted the city’s charter, perhaps, failed to consider that someone in the mould of Rob Ford could be elected as city mayor.

President Noynoy Aquino’s situation is much more complicated. A president who lacked the wherewithal of a capable and effective leader to run a nation was elected merely on the coattails of the legacy of his parents. This is not forgivable by any means. It is not only his lack of presidential chutzpah that is bothersome but his audacity to pretend he has the moral ascendancy to lead, even to ignore the Constitution that he is supposed to uphold and protect if he wants to have his way. But of course, more than half of the blame falls on the shoulders of his key people in the cabinet, those who obviously are running the government for him.

The Philippines occupies the typhoon belt of the Pacific. It is visited with typhoons every year from the onset of the rainy season until the end of the year. In addition, it is also prone to earthquakes which occur with almost the same regularity as typhoons visit the country. Any sitting President, who is able to understand the natural cycle of typhoons and earthquakes and the calamities they bring upon the country, especially to the poor who are more vulnerable to be victims of natural disasters, will see to it that the government is always prepared and ready to deal with these natural phenomena. By now, after numerous typhoons and earthquakes and with the experience learned from government responses, one would have thought that an effective national emergency and preparedness program is already in place. But Typhoon Haiyan has exposed that the country’s leadership is not up to this task.

A well-coordinated emergency response by the national government would at least prepare the population for the wrath of storms and typhoons and enable the responders and the victims to cope with the humanitarian disaster in the aftermath. But the answer or the challenge to natural disasters does not stop there. The government must start embracing the position that climate change has the most to do with the increasing frequency and intensity of typhoons that visit the Philippines every year.

In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls the evidence of climate change “unequivocal.” The effects of climate change are manifest in the irreversible rise in sea levels, mass species extinction, ocean acidification, more extreme weather events—the list goes on.
An Angry Red Hot Planet. Photo courtesy of the Green Party.
The Philippine government arguably is not solely responsible for causing this climate madness. Like other island-states, the Philippines has contributed the least to climate change compared to the more advanced and industrialized countries which are the world’s major greenhouse gas polluters. Yet, the Philippines and the poorer countries of the Third World are the main victims of climate change.

While the United Nations has established a Green Climate Fund, a targeted pool of $100 billion that will help developing countries adjust to climate change crises, contributions from the developed countries have been small and slow in coming. The UN still has to iron out when and how to deliver the fund.

But the Green Climate Fund is not the real solution to climate change. Unless the industrialized countries agree to radical emission cuts immediately, the climate madness that we are now experiencing is in danger of becoming a way of life to many of its victim-countries like the Philippines.

Naderev Saño, the Philippines chief climate negotiator, summed up this situation in his talk before the 19th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP19) where he linked Typhoon Haiyan to climate change:

“What my country (the Philippines) is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness...We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons become a way of life. Because we refuse, as a nation, to accept a future where super typhoons like Haiyan become a fact of life. We refuse to accept that running away from storms, evacuating our families, suffering the devastation and misery, having to count our dead, become a way of life. We simply refuse to.... Typhoons such as Haiyan and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to delay climate action.”

The only problem is no one’s listening to Saño’s warning, starting with President Noynoy Aquino. The current President is more interested in hearing only the good news, which would boost his polling numbers and the public’s acceptance of his leadership. He would even prefer to wallow in denial, like dismissing reports of deaths from Typhoon Haiyan beyond what he has established as an acceptable number. Or he would blame local government officials for not doing their jobs as first responders to natural disasters. Or he would blame those in the opposition, including the Supreme Court, for diluting his preconceived powers that he could accelerate government spending to stimulate the economy without prior Congressional authorization even if it was for the purpose of buying off the opposition.

President Aquino’s natural tendency to blame others for his woes creates, on top of the climate fiasco, a climate of arrogance and smugness—that his government is invincible, that it cannot fail or make mistakes. When you have a leader with this frame of mind, anything he doesn’t like is negative, and that is a very dangerous shortcoming. More often than not, a leader with this character flaw lives in a world of fantasy: one more step, and it’s closer to madness.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Ampatuan’s travesty

The Ampatuan massacre in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009 will probably go down in history as the bloodiest of all political killings in the Philippines. Four years and counting since the hearing started on January 6, 2010, the pursuit of justice for the victims of the massacre remains as elusive as the prospect of a trial date. The completion of the trial has even become the running joke around legal circles that it might happen after 200 years.
Maguindanao massacre, November 23, 2009. Photo courtesy of AFP/Mark Navales.
The greatest travesty of the Ampatuan massacre is not in how slow the wheels of justice grind in the Philippines, but right on the get go when the prosecutors decided to indict all the accused as direct participants in the commission of the crime of murder. As the Philippine Department of Justice (DOJ) said during the laying of charges against the accused: “There is direct evidence that [the accused] agreed to commit the crime. Their acts and the attendant circumstances surrounding the commission of the crime unveil a common aim that would make all of them co-principals in the crime committed.”
The DOJ panel that investigated the crime concluded that the massacre was the result of a conspiracy, that included Andal Ampatuan Sr., head of a Muslim clan and former governor of Maguindanao, his two sons, Zaldy Ampatuan, the governor of the Autonomous Muslim Region of Mindanao, and Andal Ampatuan Jr., mayor of the town that bears the family’s name, the clan’s private army and political supporters, and members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). All together, the number of accused totalled to 197, whom according to the DOJ, participated in the planning and massacre. The total number of victims is 57, which includes 32 journalists, the largest number of media workers killed in a single incident.
What seems wrong in this picture?
The notion of a conspiracy beguiles the mind. All the 197 accused, including the drivers, the Ampatuans’ lowly servants, and the backhoe operator who dug the ground where the victims were buried, knew what the plan was, that they had a unity of purpose, and they executed the plan to achieve their objective. It’s not therefore just the principals, the Ampatuan family, apparently the mastermind of this heinous crime who are criminally culpable, but each one of the 197 accused.
In a crime where there are principals, accomplices and accessories, the degree of punishment varies in accordance with the degree of their contribution in the accomplishment of the crime. However, when there is conspiracy, there will no longer be a distinction as to whether a person acted as a principal, accomplice or accessory, because when there is conspiracy, the criminal liability of all will be the same, because the act of one is the act of all.
The umbrella approach of the prosecutors to indict all accused as participants in a conspiracy to commit the massacre is a sure-fire formula that would either delay or frustrate the quest for justice. Delay will be achieved by lawyers for the defence as they can bring a deluge of motions after motions, manifestations, oppositions, including bail petitions, which to date have numbered to 750 in all. Filing an endless stream of such motions seems to be at the heart of the Ampatuans’ legal defense. This is more than enough to slow down and impede the trial. Legal stalling tactics by the lawyers of the accused, a fractured prosecution, and a slow-moving court have conspired against a speedy trial.
There are also numerous witnesses who have to be interviewed and examined, and just by the number alone would take the case to completion after 200 years, as one former Philippine senator conjectured. Some witnesses will be intimidated, threatened and frightened from testifying, and the fact is, some witnesses have already been killed or have died.
In retrospect, the Nuremberg Trial which presided over the worst case of genocide in the 20th century prosecuted only 14 of the highest-ranking Nazis. Prosecuting all the 197 accused in the Ampatuan massacre is by all means a blueprint for impunity. This will ensure that the prosecution will never end.
While the Ampatuan prosecutors are at it, i.e., establishing the conspiracy of 197 accused, why didn’t they include former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her Secretary of Defence Norberto Gonzales who were rumored as part of the over-all conspiracy? After all, the Ampatuan massacre benefited Mrs. Arroyo as it made it easier for her to rig the election results in the region and it also gave her the legal excuse to declare martial law in Maguindanao during that time. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago even remarked about an alleged sinister plan [unproven] to extend martial law beyond the province of Maguindanao to ensure that President Arroyo stay in power.
The current administration under President Noynoy Aquino has maintained that they cannot intervene directly to expedite the Ampatuan trial on the ground of constitutional separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Although President Aquino has repeatedly said that the Ampatuan case would be a litmus test of the Philippine judiciary's ability to dispense justice, the government has not shown a greater commitment of its resources and attention to ensure the success of the prosecution of those responsible for the massacre.
The lack of progress in the Ampatuan prosecution only confirms the consistent and disturbing pattern for the justice system’s treatment of media killings in the Philippines: a journalist is killed, local law enforcement officials are either lax or complicit, witnesses and complainants are intimidated, bribed or killed, and lawyers for the accused employ delaying tactics that would break the will and resources of the victims’ families. The end result is very disquieting – the case goes unresolved and the culture of impunity is thus reinforced. This shows why the Philippines has ranked third worst on the 2012 Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Impunity Index, which calculates unsolved media killings as a percentage of each country's population. Despite the Philippines' tradition of press freedom, the country's dysfunctional and corrupt criminal justice system has failed to bring justice in 55 journalist murders in the past decade.

Infographic on the Ampatuan massacre trial overview, courtesy of cmfrphilippines.
Click link to view "Journalists to commemorate 4th anniversary of Ampatuan Massacre," 
The Aquino government can do something to ensure that those who perpetrated the Ampatuan massacre are brought to trial in a fashion that dispenses swift justice for the victims and their grieving families. To keep invoking the separation of powers between the main branches of government is a lame excuse, and only reinforces the prevailing culture of impunity. President Aquino’s continuing failure to state how he intends to finish the prosecution of the Ampatuan massacre means he lacks the political will to punish those who violate freedom of the press and the right to life.
For him to correct this charade of justice, President Aquino can, for starters, ask the Supreme Court to designate the Quezon City Regional Trial Court hearing the case a “special court” with no other duties beyond the Maguindanao massacre hearings. The special court then can start the prosecution and trial of the principals in the case (i.e., members of the Ampatuan clan), and do away with the notion of a conspiracy, even if it would mean dismissing the charges against those who were co-accused but apparently played a minor role in the massacre. All the 62 policemen and military personnel involved in the massacre should be dismissed from service immediately, the charges against them can be dropped or they can be indicted for charges appropriate for their role in the massacre.
One last but immediate measure President Aquino can do for the families of the victims of the massacre is to provide them with compensation for the death of the victims and failure of the government in its obligation to protect and promote the right of the victims to live. This is nothing new. Government compensation for crime victims dates back to the ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, which is considered the oldest known written body of criminal law.
Victims of crimes ought to be compensated by the government charged with the responsibility to protect them when it failed to do so. Many countries today have some form of compensation scheme that pays reparation to victims of crimes for the failure of government to protect them. This compensation becomes the means of repairing the harm left in the wake of crime.
In at least two cases before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the Philippines was found guilty of breaching its obligation to protect and promote the right to life for its failure to reasonably investigate and prosecute the killings of Navy Ensign Philip Pestano and Eden Marcellana. The UN Committee declared that the Philippine government owes to pay compensation to these two victims of extrajudicial killings.
Upon hearing of a Hong Kong woman, who was shot in the face during the deadly 2010 hostage crisis in the Philippines, that she needed to have surgery on her left jaw, President Aquino has agreed to give an undisclosed amount to help her defray the cost of the operation. If Noynoy’s heart bleeds for a Hong Kong citizen, what then should prevent him from also feeling the pain and suffering of the families of the victims of the Ampatuan massacre, his very own compatriots?
There is ample time left in President Aquino’s term to reverse the travesty and shame that the Ampatuan trial has brought upon the justice system. But only if his heart also bleeds for his fellow Filipinos, if he can feel the anguish of the families of the victims, and if he will listen to their cry for justice.