THE DEBATE here and now, is whether besides fighting in the field, the Philippine armed forces should be fighting civilians, too. No one represents the debate on what the armed forces should do, and to what extent it should be held responsible in its duty to fight the New People’s Army, better than Gen. Jovito Palparan.
He has been bold and blunt in what he thinks should be done. And that is, to fight the NPA not just in the field, but to attack what he considers its support system, the legal Left.
In this view, Palparan isn’t unique. Testifying before the Melo Commission, Gen. Esperon said, “The CPP is the brain; the NPA is the armed group; and the NDF is the shield. The NDF is composed of legal organizations that may have been infiltrated by the CPP and NPA.” But Gen. Esperon, before the same commission, was careful to distinguish military operations, fighting the NPA, from other efforts of a non-military nature, which he said were properly the department of the civilian agencies of the government. So far, so good; the problem is that Palparan made statements that at the very least, suggested he, as a commanding officer, had no problem if soldiers and civilians went beyond fighting the NPA in the field.
Back to Gen. Palparan, he’s made some blood-curdling statements as quoted in the Melo report. Just one example: “I cannot order my soldiers to kill, it’s their judgment call, they can do it on their own.” But the problem with such fire-breathing statements, is that they could be construed as an inspiration to portions of the military who might be tempted to use what Mussolini called inexorable force to solve political problems. Inexorable force may be okay for fascists, but it contradicts our democracy’s dedication to human rights.
Palparan’s statements have already led his critics to call him “the butcher,” and he has even become the focus of some investigations. The calls for such investigations began even when Palparan was still an officer on active duty.
In response to such calls, Gen. Esperon told the Melo Commission, “[he] admitted that the AFP has the power and authority to investigate if any of its officers has violated certain rules and regulations, such investigation may, however, muddle or obstruct any on-going operation. Gen. Esperon added that the AFP has confidence in the duly constituted investigative body.”
To his credit, Palparan, according to Esperon, expressed willingness to be investigated, but as the Melo Report noted, the AFP didn’t investigate Palparan because no formal complaint was lodged. So it’s been up to other institutions to do their own investigations.
Besides the Melo Commission, official investigations include Task Force Usig, both set up by the president, and the Commission on Human Rights which works independently. Recently, the CHR issued a preliminary report on General Palparan. The report was hailed by the AFP, which said it cleared the controversial general.
The CHR, however, denied it cleared Gen. Palparan. A story in the Bohol Chronicle quotes Acting Commission on Human Rights (CHR) chair Dominador Calamba II as saying “that Palparan could not shy away from the fact that killings were rampant anywhere he is assigned. The retired general failed to initiate inquiries on the alleged extra-judicial killings when it should have been his chance to clear his name.”
Mallari, a fellow commissioner in the CHR, was tasked with looking into political killings in Central Luzon where Palparan had been assigned as 7th Infantry Division commander. The allegations were that Palparan should be held responsible for the spate of alleged political killings in the region. Mallari, in his report, said Palparan should not be held responsible, because he unearthed no evidence directly linking Palparan to any such killings.
But then not even Palparan’s harshest critics ever alleged that he was running around personally liquidating leftists.
Rather, the question concerning Gen. Palparan is this: To what extent is he, as an officer, liable, for the conduct of their troops? In other words, should our senior generals be held accountable for violations of human rights? In other words, does command responsibility apply to officers like Palparan? Particularly in the light of his fire-breathing statements? And what should civilians do about it?
Our own government launched investigations, as we know. Some are ongoing and some will hopefully lead to prosecutions. The issue gets complicated when foreigners become interested. Complicated, because at times it seems our own government is inconsistent. When a UN special rapporteur came here and did his own investigating, our armed forces complained. When a US Senate Committee conducted a hearing on these accusations, some of our own senators complained. But the UN rapporteur’s activities put pressure on the executive branch to release the Melo Report which it had wanted to withhold from the public. And now, despite threats from senators like Miriam Defensor-Santiago to investigate the USA for human rights violations, the executive has decided to welcome a rapporteur from the US State Department.
In other words, there seem to be principles at work here, that are so important they become the business of everyone, and not just the locals, to look into. At the heart of all this are the principles we know as human rights. And also, the idea that command responsibility is not something nations can adopt or ignore, but that all modern militaries are obliged to uphold.
AFP chief of staff Hermogenes Esperon, Jr., when asked if officers should be held accountable for cases involving the military murder of civilians, told the Melo Commission he didn’t believe command responsibility should apply.
But on Feb. 4, he changed his mind. Why did he do that? Court cases and presidential directives mandate the principle of command responsibility. To his credit, Gen. Esperon, when it turned out he was wrong, did something about it. Faced by the law and his own opinions on command responsibility, Esperon upheld the principle and not his own opinion.
But this only begs an ancient question. Who will guard the guardians, the ancient Romans asked. Every society with a military eventually ends up asking itself the same thing. As well we should. The armed forces are our armed forces: They fight for us, they are paid by us, they are supposed to represent what is best in us.
Gen. Esperon is free to have his own opinions, whether on the innocence of his men when it comes to allegations of human rights violations, or his wanting the CPP-NPA declared illegal. I don’t think he should be free to express his opinions. Those are policy statements, and those are for the civilians, not the officers of our AFP, to craft.