12 November 2009, the President of the Philippines promulgated a law that finally recognized officially that torture is a crime, and established a range of sentences proportional to the seriousness of the act. This law is the result of decades of campaigning by human rights activists in a country still very much affected by the legacy of Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship.
Far from the dream-like picture found in travel brochures, poverty and inequality in wealth distribution and access to resources, land in particular, have drawn large sections of Philippine society to a precarious edge. While 70% of the population depend on agriculture, a small oligarchy owns the best lands and uses bloody methods, through private militias, with the support of the army, to expel farmers from their lands and crush uprisings.
Some 140 indigenous ethnic groups, representing between 15 and 20 % of the country’s inhabitants, make up the most marginalized portion of the population of the archipelago. They are frequently the target of various forms of abuse, violence and exploitation. Lacking adequate government protection, they are exposed to the ruthlessness of large mining or agricultural companies, that would resort to force, threats, or even summary executions in order to displace whole communities and dispossess them of their ancestral lands if those happen to be located in economically valuable zones.
In the southern Mindanao province, Muslim communities also suffer from marginalization and oppression. The « Moro » people are struggling to regain part of their lost independence in their ancestral lands, against a massive immigration of catholic northerners encouraged by Manila. The armed conflict between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, dating back from the 1970’s, has made numerous victims and over two millions internally displaced.
In response to serious violations of their social, economic and cultural rights, some are turning to armed struggle. On the other hand, the Philippine government tends to consider social strife as a potential risk for security and frequently adopts a repressive attitude, in a context of judicial inadequacy and widespread impunity.
The passing of the new anti-torture law marks an important step forward. The authorities must now effectively implement this text, by ensuring among others that the members of the security forces, who are chiefly responsible for torture, abide by the new legislation.