THE United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Saturday urged the Aquino administration to act on the worsening crisis faced by indigenous people in Mindanao, called lumad, and protect them from further attacks.
The UNHCR said more than 6,000 lumad have fled their homes in Mindanao because of atrocities and threats from the military and militias and “have not benefited from state protection.”
“Respect for the rule of law should be upheld by ensuring that the perpetrators of these killings causing displacement will be apprehended and prosecuted... so they can return to their communities... and feel protected by the government,” the UN agency said.
The UNHCR also described as “inaccurate” the government claims that the killings of lumad leaders that led to the displacement of several communities were due to tribal conflicts and such claims only result in aggravating the situation.
“The indigenous peoples are the most marginalized and vulnerable population in the Philippines and require special protection under Philippine and international human rights law,” the UNHCR said.
Even the Commission on Human Rights dispute the claim of the Armed Forces of the Philippines that the slain lumad leaders were rebels and demanded the immediate disbandment of all paramilitary groups to stem the lumad’s restiveness.
“The fact that the high-powered weapons should be in the hands of those in control of the law [and these slain lumad] are not rebels is unacceptable,” Commission on Human Rights Chairperson Jose Luis Martin Gascon told The Standard.
“That’s why we are joining the call for disbanding all paramilitary groups and the augmentation of security forces like the CAFGU and the like,” Gascon said.
“The fact that some of the violations were perpetrated by paramilitary groups, points to at least the culpability of some elements encouraging these paramilitary groups to continue,” he added.
Gascon said it is understandable that there are ongoing security operations against communist insurgents, but a free and democratic society should be guided by the rule of law and “only our security forces should have access to and use high-powered weapons.”
Gascon, who spoke at the unveiling of a peace monument at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, said the CHR is still in the process of consolidating the results of its fact-finding mission and public hearings in Mindanao.
“Yes, we do have an overview but the commission en banc would have to look into these reports,” he said, adding that there are many conflict-drivers and the issues involved are “very complex.”
“In a sense, what we have done is to shed light into these conditions, the over-all situation affecting lumad communities in Mindanao,” he said.
Gascon admitted that the civil unrest has already escalated not only in Surigao del Sur, but also in other places in Mindanao.
“What we need to do first is to document these evidence, these violence against lumads, regardless of who the perpetrators are,” said Gascon.
“Clearly, the murders that occurred in Lianga were perpetrated by people identified as part of the Baghani group, the Tecson brothers. We need to pursue justice,” he added.
Gascon challenged the police and the military to arrest the perpetrators of the killings and urged lumads to avail of legal remedies, such as a ‘writ of amparo’ and ‘writ of habeas data.’
“I think the warrants of arrest have been issued, what is needed is for these to be enforced,” Gascon said.
“If some remedies are necessary, the groups that are assisting the victims can make those necessary motions—writ of amparo, habeas data, should be part of those of the available remedies that should be available for us to pursue justice.”
“The police are the principal law enforcement institution, and they should respond to these situations accross the country and areas across Mindanao. There should be no reason for them not to, and as principal law enforcement institution, especially in human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, the police must step in.”
Gascon stressed that the military should respect the rules of engagements, especially the Child Protection Policy of the Department of Education, which disallows armed elements from entering school premises to protect the welfare of the students.
The CHR chair called for the government to respond to the immediate needs of the lumads, especially those in the evacuation centers.