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National Mechanisms

Existing National Mechanisms in the Philippines to prevent Torture

1.      Commission on Human Rights (CHR)—a constitutional creation and quasi-independent body mandated to conduct visits and inspections in jails, penitentiaries and other places where individuals are deprived of their liberty to monitor conditions and practices. The CHR, from our point of view has been inefficient in carrying out this mandate and has been outdone by visiting NGOs in documentation work, service rendering and projecting issues of prisoner/detainee welfare and rights. It is financed by the central government.

 

2.      Justices of the Department of Justice (DOJ)—who are mandated to conduct visits to the correctional facilities they hold custody over, through the DOJ’s line bureau, the Bureau of Corrections. The Bureau of Corrections is in charge of the 7 national penitentiaries, penal farms and colonies, holding around 30,000 inmates. The largest is the New Bilibid Prison(NBP) with 17,000 inmates. We have yet to hear an extensive and thorough visit conducted by these justices. The DOJ Secretary Raul Gonzales sometimes visits the NBP. From information received from contacts within the facility, his pre-announced visits are prepared for by the Bucor officials running the facility and his walk-through is rehearsed. Many of the inmates are conditioned—through fear or camaraderie with the guards) to respond in a certain manner. These visits by the justices are internal to them and the carrying out as well as their findings are not made public.

 

3.      The legislature, Senate and the House of Representatives also have the power to visit any facility where individuals are deprived of their liberty; and to inspect in aid of legislating reforms. It is part of their oversight powers or function. We, the member organizations of the United Against Torture Coalition have (as a result of the various committees of the House of Representatives’ participation in the OPCAT caucuses and the big forum held for the instrument’s campaign last November) been asked to be involved in an Ad Hoc group led by the HOR committee on human rights (which sponsored the OPCAT resolution in congress). Balay, together with the other organizations, with years of experience in providing services for detainees/prisoners and advocating for their welfare and policy reform, drew up a visitation programme for this ad hoc group as well as briefed the committee (which is practicing this oversight function for the first time) on issues that cause the sub human conditions and practices within correctional facilities. We have so far carried out one visit with three congress persons and the committee members. This was at the NBP last February. We have had subsequent technical working group sessions/ round table discussions in congress and were able to table certain items to work on. These are as follows:

 

4.      NGOs—there is also a possible tabling of legislation (Bill) allowing the committees to deputize NGOs such as Balay to conduct visits. Allowing more space for the public scrutiny of the facilities. Chances of this materializing is quite slim if not assertively pursued through.

 

·        Refiling of the Bill that will strengthen or enhance the powers of the Commission on Human Rights (which currently has no prosecutory powers). This Bill reached the 2nd reading at the last congress and can prove to be vital if the CHR is to be designated as an NPM under OPCAT in the future.

 

·        The continuity of the committee on civil, political and human rights led ad hoc group which is to indefinitely conduct visits once every three months. We will visit jails/penitentiaries with the worst conditions.

 

The committee is to soon schedule another RTD.

 

5.      Ad Hoc Committee on Prison Reforms—this ad hoc groups is made up of the Commission on Human Rights and progressive NGOs led by the Philippine Human Rights Information Centre (Philirights) which is a member of UATC as well. This group facilitates stakeholder discussions/dialogues/forums at detention facilities (with prisoners/detainees, correctional officials, the CHR, NGOs, organizations of detainees/prisoners, the DOJ, Bureau of Pardons and Parole, Public Attorney’s Office) and in subsequent formal round table discussions and meetings between the correctional institutions, concerned line agencies and departments, the CHR, and NGOs.

 

We have held a big inter-agency and prisoner dialogue in the NBP last 7 December. It was attended by many representatives of the concerned agencies and prisoners from  maximum, medium, minimum facilities were afforded a chance to voice their grievances and ask questions. We recently held a follow up dialogue with the government representatives who were present at that event to encourage them to follow through their mentioned actions and commitments. Also included were what they had done so far to fulfill their pledges during the 7 December activity.

 

Our current hurdle is to convince correctional and line agency officials to 'open up'--i.e. Openly discuss the conditions and treatment of detainees in their facilities. We have through these meetings been encouraging them—based on the principle of cooperation that the OPCAT stands for—to be more open regarding questionable practices and conditions within their facilities so that we can at least begin to find solutions to address these problems. Right now, representatives of the departments and their facilities are still quite sensitive to critique and are trained to respond in a way that will protect their institution's image. We have often witnessed them valiantly attempting to cover up valid issues with verbal cosmetics instead of acknowledging the accountability of their ranks.

 

NGO observations and conclusions will of course be placed in articles in our publications as we have always done but will cover a relatively small audience due to lack of resources.

 

Process of Ratification:

 

I am afraid we have hit a brick wall in the OPCAT campaign here in the Philippines. As was discussed during our forum last November, custodial executive departments such as the DOJ, Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), the Department of National Defence and the Department of Health will have to submit a certificate of concurrence. The President will then sign the instrument and transmit it to the Senate which will then ratify the treaty. As reflected by the resolution released by the Presidential Human Rights Committee (a body that makes recommendations to the President on human rights concerns), 10 out of 11 member departments were willing to sign this resolution recommending the immediate ratification of the OPCAT. Only the Department of National Defence (DND) is standing in the way of full concurrence at this level.

 

In discussions with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) it was confirmed that the DND had disapproved of the OPCAT’s ratification in the Philippines. Apparently a few months back, the DFA had circulated its own version of an OPCAT briefing note to all implementing departments and agencies requesting for comments. It had also sent them a sample of the certificate of concurrence. All had responded positively except for the DND and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The latter had responded through a document citing items which had more to do with the implementation and fulfillment of the CAT rather than the OPCAT.  Our DFA contact informs us that the DND’s manifested reason for refusal was the lack of a domestic anti-torture law. The DND expressed its openness to concur to the OPCAT once such a legal framework is in place.

 

What is ironic is that though DND representatives have always been present during our congressional technical working groups (to water it down), they have not been precisely pressing for anti-torture legislation. The anti-torture Bill passed the third reading last congress, a milestone actually but unfortunately the Senate did not show any interest in pursuing a corresponding Bill.  Thus the Bil will have to be re-tabled before the next congress and we will have to seek a new strategy for the Senate. Meanwhile, we have decided on three strategies to promote the OPCAT. (a) Engage the DND and change its perception or understanding of the OPCAT, (b) convince the President who can supersede the department concurrence level.

 

Strategy (b) can be carried out by engaging key officials in the new Presidential Human Rights Committee. It will be difficult this time since the NGO representation in this body has been recently struck out. Key officials of the PHRC can help convince  the President to sign the instrument (and maybe certify it as an urgent mechanism that can help as a balancing measure to the anti-terrorism law?). We have been working on this strategy in many way i.e. Sending letters, making contact from within the department etc. to get an appointment with its principal for more than a year but to little avail. A considerable national support base has been consolidated for the OPCAT through our collective efforts but unfortunately, it seems this one government department is hindering any progress at the moment.

 

(c) Lastly, there are the international institutions such as the ICRC and other less prominent entities that are doing good work utilizing “less aggressive” and confidential procedures. There is also the four large prison ministries that are active in helping improve jail and prison conditions e.g. the Jesuit Prison Ministry and Caritas being two of them. These organisations can also be approached to convince the government to sign and ratify the OPCAT.

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