Command responsibility: Can Arroyo evade it?

Jul. 07, 2007

By the Policy Study, Publication and Advocacy (PSPA)
Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG)

Arroyo with her favorite soldier, Gen. Hermogenes Esperon

MANILA — President Gloria M. Arroyo may heave a sigh of relief when Congress convenes for its 14th session this July without a third impeachment waiting to be filed against her. But there are increasing doubts whether she can evade responsibility anymore for the extra-judicial killings and other human rights violations that her own security forces have reportedly committed under her watch since 2001.

Directly or indirectly, the office of the President has been linked repeatedly to the executions, frustrated killings and abduction of activists which, it is widely believed, could not have been committed systematically and on a nationwide-scale without Mrs. Arroyo, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, knowing or encouraging it. The atrocities were attributed to governments national security doctrine cited in Oplan Bantay Laya I and II, which sought to neutralize suspected front organizations of the communist underground. The counter-insurgency strategy, which the President wanted to fast track in two years, aimed at breaking the backbone of the armed revolutionary movement but its punitive operations launched in so-called priority areas led instead to the assassination and abduction of community leaders, party-list organizers, rights activists, leaders of church and faith communities, as well as a big number of workers, peasants, indigenous people, Muslims, women and children. By the latest count, the human rights alliance Karapatan reports that there have been 866 victims of extra-judicial or summary executions and at least 180 victims of forced disappearance. This is on top of tens of thousands of civilians hurt and displaced by militarization in the rural provinces.

Since the beginning of this year, the Arroyo government has come under a defensive tack owing to mounting pressures from within the country and international and multilateral organizations for the state security forces to be reined in and for a stop to the killings. Arroyo has been served notice by a number of foreign governments and institutions that the release of development aid would be contingent on its human rights record.


At home, Arroyo officials face possible investigation by the Senate for their role in the extra-judicial killings and disappearances with at least one of three active AFP generals, who have implicated military top brass to the killings, promising to reveal everything once the probe opens. Pledging to have the Supreme Court (SC) take a proactive role on the deteriorating state of human rights, Chief Justice Reynato Puno has convened a summit on July 16-17 to take up the issue of command responsibility in connection with the political killings. The chief justice had earlier designated 99 regional trial courts as special tribunals for the speedy and expeditious resolution of human rights cases. The extrajudicial taking of life is the ultimate violation of human rights, Puno said in announcing the tribunals last February. Extrajudicial killings also constitute brazen assaults on the rule of law.

The investigations expected to be held in the Senate, the Puno-initiated human rights summit, and similar activities can serve as venues for tackling the issue of command responsibility in the killings that could go all the way to the office of the President. Anticipating the fire that could start blazing against Arroyo, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita last week said command responsibility only applies to military personnel and does not include the President as commander-in-chief. The definition of command responsibility by Ermita, a former Marcos colonel, smacks of how little the presidential office knows about the doctrine. Or it can be seen as a move to shield the President from her possible accountability for the killings.

The doctrine of command responsibility used to apply only to military personnel and their superiors who can be subjected to criminal or civil liability for war crimes and crimes against humanity they committed. Over the years, however, the doctrine adopted in various tribunals and codified in international laws has evolved to cover also civilian authorities.

The first attempt at codifying the principle of command responsibility was The Hague Convention (IV) of 1907 Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and was first applied at the Leipzig War Trials in 1920. Emil Muller, a German army captain, was tried and sentenced to imprisonment for his failure to prevent the commission of crimes inside a prisoner-of-war camp under his command.

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