A culture of impunity

Gene Stoltzfus
By Gene Stoltzfus
5 Feb 2007

I have been travelling in the Philippines where news of increased troop levels and warfare in Iraq reaches us. Although it has been many months since I was in Baghdad, where I listened to the stories of detainees, I have a clear image of the increased burden of violence. I imagine with horror the columns of military vehicles weaving their way in narrow streets where homes and storefronts of my friends’ neighbourhoods abound.

As I write I remember vividly my conversations with medical professionals and citizens in Iraq about another toxic product of the modern warfare, depleted uranium (DU), arising from the use of ammunition shells containing this substance as an agent that could penetrate heavy armour.

More than 10 persons - criminals, drug dealers and gang leaders - have been assassinated this month (February 2007) here in Davao, the premier city in Mindanao, the Philippines Southern Island of 25 million people. The killings arise from a policy put in place by Mayor Rodrigo Dulart. The law of execution even reaches taxi drivers who occasionally overcharge unsuspecting riders and have been threatened that they will disappear in the night.

Brash overcharging taxi drivers discourage tourism. Summary execution is now the accepted way of justice according to local people. “The killings use to get into the news but there are so many that it’s no longer news”, said one local resident. The process works like this.

The first time criminals or drug distributors are caught they are held in jail for a while and released. The second time after they are again released from jail, their bodies are found dead often from brutal knife wounds, usually only a block or two from the jail. It’s gotten so bad that people who are caught beg to stay in jail because it’s safer there. And our informal conversations tell us that the people of Davao City like the new policy. Security has improved. There are less cell phones stolen, fewer drug pushers and the streets are safer and the city can get on with being a premier city. Sources say the hit people are groups who work under contract.

I was first introduced to the full meaning of the word “impunity” some years ago when I travelled in Colombia. A church leader in his first breath of introducing the situation in Colombia said, “This is a nation of impunity.” He meant that there were plenty of good laws but the power of law requires the respect of citizens and reliable means to make the law work.

At that time in Colombia due to violent pressure on the judiciary through manipulation those who transgressed the law knew that they could go unpunished especially those tied into big farms, business or one of the armed groups. People also knew that the law would not be applied equally and that extra judiciary pressure tactics including violence, extortion and threat were the real means used by people with power to get their way. There were enough people who wanted it that way and enough others who voluntarily remained silent or felt pressured into silence that apparently nothing could be done.

Now focus back to the Philippines where upwards of 200 persons identified as alleged supporters of leftist groups including the Maoist New People’s Army have been assassinated throughout the country by masked hit squads riding motorcycles. In February 2006 Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a State of Emergency, citing a conspiracy to overthrow the government by members of the mainstream opposition in “tactical alliance” with rightists, communist rebels, progressive leftists groups and serving and former military personnel.

The growth in the number of extrajudicial killings has contributed to a national crisis in respect for law. The belief that the hit squads are connected to the Philippine military who continue to enjoy training and joint operations with US Forces here in the Pacific is so widespread it adds to widespread distrust that the government can administer the law fairly. Many people fear that the oncoming congressional elections in May 2007 will be a time of even greater killings and lawlessness.

The local and national culture of disrespect for law evident here in the Philippines is complicated even further by incidents of selective respect for emerging international law exhibited by the world’s super power. In the mid 1980s I was shocked when the government of the United States unilaterally refused to appear before international courts over incidents occurring in Nicaragua. There was no public outcry from citizens because the incident did not affect them directly.

Now with the casual respect for international covenants of war and human rights that have been reflected in the Iraqi occupation, there has been an increase of concern for the culture of law around the world. This growth of concern is reflected modestly in public discussion in America. When superpowers exhibit a disrespect for law and international covenants they no longer are viewed as a force for good in the world and their people working around the world shoulder the burden of disrespect that their government has earned for them.

Deeply rooted however within the public here in Davao and in America is the ethic, “kill the suspected offender (read terrorists, criminals, or suspects) now and ask questions later.” Meantime when necessary, lawyers, government or non government representatives reinterpret the law in a succession of crises in justice and process.

The interconnection between international impunity for big pushy nations and heavy handed mayors in premier developing cities cannot be discounted in the development of a global culture stalled in the quest for justice. The good news is that a vigilant public committed to immediate response to lawless rule will cut short the cultural slide into impunity where all of us will pay dearly. And it only takes a small percentage of persons who are competent, committed, and organized to make a major difference.

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© Gene Stoltzfus. Gene, a founder of Christian Peacemaker Teams, is currently on a CPT exploratory delegation to the Philippines with Rey Lopez and Elizabeth Garcia. This article is excerpted with grateful acknowledgments from his online diary, ‘Peace Talk’.

Christian Peacemaker Teams is an initiative of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Quakers) with support and membership from a range of Catholic and Protestant denominations. Supporting violence-reduction efforts around the world is its mandate.

Article reproduced with the kind permission of Christian Peacemaker Teams

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