Speech on Desaparecidos

End the List!
Privilege Speech for the International Day of the Disappeared 2014

Senator Pia S. Cayetano
01 September 2014

Mr. President, esteemed colleagues,

The United Nations has declared August 30 as the International Day of the Disappeared. Today, I rise on a matter of personal and collective privilege to commemorate this day and remember those who should not be forgotten – victims of enforced disappearances and their families.

I first became involved in this issue sometime in 2009 when I met the mother of Jonas Burgos, who was abducted in broad daylight inside a mall in Quezon City. Until now, Edith Burgos does not know the whereabouts or the fate of her son. I felt a special affinity to Edith, because like her I also lost my son. But our circumstances were very different. My son died due to a chromosomal disorder. He died in my arms and although I have come to accept that I will never see him again in this lifetime, I am comforted by the knowledge that I was with him when he died. I wish this was a comfort that Edith Burgos and all the mothers, wives, children and family of the disappeared could have.

Enforced disappearance is widely considered as one of the gravest forms of human rights violations. It violates the most fundamental rights of a person – the right to life, liberty, and security; the right to dignity and to live free from fear; the right to family life; and the right not to be tortured. It infringes upon a person’s right to truth, to effective investigation, remedies, and redress. When the disappeared is killed, he is stripped of his right to identification and proper burial or cremation.

The persistence of enforced disappearance is a grave threat to the values and principles that we hold dear as a democratic society. It renders futile the rights we have fought for and enshrined in our Constitution. Without appropriate and urgent actions, more will be added to the long list of desaparecidos in the Philippines and worldwide.

On December 21, 2012, the Philippines achieved a breakthrough in the enactment of the Anti-Disappearance Law, which established enforced disappearance as a separate offense in the country. Mr. President, nowhere else in Asia has this been achieved. This milestone, a legislative crusade that spanned almost two decades, is a significant step towards the goal of achieving a zero-disappearance future for the Philippines.

However, there remain two important gaps which should be addressed in order for the Philippines to prove its strong commitment to end disappearances. First, we must ensure full and strict implementation of the Anti-Disappearance Law. Second, and the focus of my speech, is the thorough study for consideration of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

The Convention is a product of decades of struggle undergone by families of the disappeared around the world, who have fought for a normative and legally-binding human rights instrument that crystallizes the right not to be disappeared; that guarantees non-repetition by providing for strong preventive mechanisms; that establishes State responsibility and accountability for non-compliance. Many of the Convention’s salient provisions complement the Anti-Disappearance Act of 2012, most of which are rooted in real life experiences of the families of the disappeared.

The Commission on Human Rights includes the signing of the Convention in its Strategic Plan for 2011-2015, as this will help ensure the Philippines’ compliance with international obligations, as well as cement our commitment to protect and promote human rights, especially the right not to be subjected to enforced disappearance. It will also manifest the State’s solidarity with countries dealing with the issue of enforced disappearance – especially in Asia, the continent with the highest number of cases submitted to the United Nations.[1]

One important case of disappearance in the region is that of respected Ramon Magsaysay Awardee, Sombath Somphone. Sombath is a prominent civil society leader from Laos, who received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2005 for community leadership because of his exemplary work in sustainable agriculture and youth development.[2] On December 15, 2012, Laotian police stopped Sombath’s vehicle and abducted him. This was caught on CCTV camera, and he has never been seen since. Sombath’s wife, Shui Meng, visited my office during the last Session break to take up his case and gather support from neighboring countries.

I would like to take this opportunity to express deep concern over the lack of serious investigation of Sombath’s case as relayed to us by his wife, despite the Laos Government’s signing and ratification of the Convention Against Enforced Disappearance. Human rights should never take a backseat in the ASEAN community – not now, and not in 2015 and beyond. In the Philippines, we also have our own list of victims of enforced disappearance who, until now, have yet to be given justice.

Mr. President, last month marked the apprehension of Retired Major General Jovito Palparan, who has been charged with several human rights violations, including killings, torture, and enforced disappearance.[3] The time has come for us to bring the issue of enforced disappearance back into the public sphere, to talk about this harsh reality and take action to prevent any more lives from vanishing without a trace.

The list of desaparecidos in the Philippines and around the world has become too long and too painful to endure. One meaningful step towards ending this list is to closely study the International Convention Against Disappearance and consider its alignment with our own goals of giving justice to desaparecidos and their families. Thank you.

[1] U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) A/HRC/22/45
[2] Ramon Magsaysay Foundation http://www.rmaf.org.ph/newrmaf/main/awardees/awardee/profile/137
[3] http://www.philstar.com/news-feature/2014/08/12/1356782/how-jovito-palparan-earned-butcher-tag

Photo: Sen. Pia Cayetano walks through an exhibit showing photos of victims of enforced disappearance in the Philippines.

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