Defeating ‘twisted culture’ of torture

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By: Renato Mabunga, Manila
Defending Human Rights Defenders
June 27, 2012

On Tuesday, the United Nations marked the “International Day in Support of Torture Victims.” It was a significant day filled with simple and substantial ironies.

In Manila, about 600 human rights advocates, military and police personnel “tortured” motorists who were stranded on a major thoroughfare while a procession demonstrating against torture passed.

A more significant irony was the declaration of the country’s police and military headquarters as “torture-free zones” even as detainees claimed the contrary.

Freedom from torture is neither a palliative nor a piece of legislation that a government brags about to hide its non-compliance. Freedom from torture is supposed to be a product of an organizational culture deeply imbedded in the practice of good policing and security service.

This is not the case in the Philippines.

Peasant leader Franklin Barrera from Atimonan in Quezon province was abducted, hit by a butt of a rifle on the nape, and made to swallow three spoonfuls of salt after failing to identify persons on a photograph shown to him by soldiers.

The duality between action and the pronouncements of security forces in the Philippines makes one doubt the sincerity of state agents.

Torture seems to have become a source of power for security personnel. It has defined the ground to make an acceptable standard that governs their behavior. The practice is so entrenched in the system that no amount of pronouncements can ban it as a “standard practice.”

A sincere reorganization, reformation and retooling of law enforcement and security apparatus must be done. Freedom from torture must first transform attitudes and organizational culture that are owned and shared by agents of government.

The Philippines has been a state-party to the UN Convention Against Torture since 1987. After 22 years, an anti-torture law was enacted in the Philippines. In April this year, the Philippines became the 63rd state-party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. In May, the Philippines reported to the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review a decrease in reported cases of torture.

Human rights groups, however, disagreed. They said incidents of torture, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, have increased since 2010.

The UN council recommended the absolute prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, the establishment of mechanisms to address cases and victims, and the immediate arrest of human rights violators like former Army major general Jovito Palparan, former governor Joel Reyes and the perpetrators of the infamous Maguindanao massacre that killed 58 people including 54 journalists.

Statements against torture in the Philippines abound. Unfortunately words have failed to provide a framework for collective leadership to encourage common norms toward the achievement of a torture-free society.

The gap proves government resistance to change by security forces. They have become adamant to renege power and seem to have found satisfaction in tormenting “perceived enemies” with impunity. New norms will make them lose their “immunity” and make them vulnerable to justice.

Torture has become an organizational culture in the Philippine armed forces and the national police. The country’s security forces have adopted a misdirected collective understanding and interpretation of service and basic assumptions of responsibility.

The move toward a torture-free society is therefore an open declaration of war against perpetrators and the system that protects them. Who will stand up to challenge a twisted culture?

Renato Mabunga is chairman of Human Rights Defenders, a lobbyist at the UN Human Rights Council and a regional educator on human rights.

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