IF, as President-elect Rodrigo Duterte contends, there is crime and lawlessness in the country that should be stamped out by the government, it is no less true that there is widespread impunity in our society.
Impunity, bluntly and simply defined as exemption or immunity from punishment, is, in a sense, more outrageous than crime itself.
Crime is a menace to our lives. Impunity is an indictment of us as a civilized nation, which has its own criminal justice system.
The same sense of urgency that attends Mr. Duterte’s call to arms against crime should be directed toward what one social activist has described as “our culture of impunity.”
No distinction between crimes and victims
Whenever the word impunity is mentioned in the Philippine context, people immediately focus on the many unsolved and unpunished killings of journalists in this country. But this is not why I raise the issue here; I do so because the impunity problem of the Philippines does not distinguish between crimes and victims. All are subsumed by it.
Ironically, it was a question from one journalist on what Mr. Duterte will do about crimes against journalists that triggered his tirade against the media. To him, it’s an effrontery that journalists should raise concern about violence against journalists.
But like it or not, the moment Mr. Duterte accedes to office, he will be deluged by questions from foreign governments, the United Nations, and the international media about the country’s atrocious impunity record. He cannot boycott them all without doing harm to the country’s relations with the international community.
The Carter Center, the rights advocacy organization founded by former US President Jimmy Carter, has raised concerns that President-elect Duterte’s statements that “condone and encourage extra-judicial killings of alleged criminals by the police and general public” create an environment of impunity and an erosion of respect for basic human rights.
Impunity as a failure of the state
Writing on law and order, Walter Lippmann said: “The struggle against lawlessness is the struggle for civilization itself.”
He sagely warned: “The criminal tendencies will always be there, reborn in each new generation, and the question is how much the tendencies can be kept under control and how far they can be domesticated. If there is more crime and vice among the young, it is not because there is suddenly a more criminal and vicious generation. It must be because there is less discipline, and more tempting opportunities for vice and crime.”
President-elect Duterte and his advisers must understand that at the heart of the impunity issue is the question whether the Philippines really adheres to the rule of law.
The amended Set of Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights Through Action to Combat Impunity defines impunity as follows:
“Impunity arises from a failure by States to meet their obligations to investigate violations; to take appropriate measures in respect of the perpetrators, particularly in the area of justice, by ensuring that those suspected of criminal responsibility are prosecuted, tried and duly punished; to provide victims with effective remedies and to ensure that they receive reparation for the injuries suffered; to ensure the inalienable right to know the truth about violations; and to take other necessary steps to prevent a recurrence of violations.”
Faring poorly in global indices
The Philippines’ failure to meet its obligation is now a matter of national embarrassment and shame. In many global indices, our government comes up short and sometimes last.
According to the Global Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Philippines is one of the five worst countries where journalists are murdered with impunity. Only the Philippines is not in a state of large-scale armed conflict. It was exceeded only by Somalia, Iraq and Syria.
Even more disturbing, the country has earned the woeful distinction of having the worst record in bringing wrongdoers to justice, according to a study of countries plagued by impunity.
In the first World Impunity Index drawn up by the Impunity and Justice Research Center of the Universidad de las Americas, a private university in Puebla, Mexico, the Philippines
has the worst impunity record.
Even Mexico, which has been suffering from years of criminal violence aggravated by a corrupt security and justice system, ranked second-worst only to the Philippines. Had the researchers ranked it worst, they could become victims of violence and impunity.
The researchers defined impunity as “the impossibility, de jure or de facto, of bringing the perpetrators of violations to account—whether in criminal, civil, administrative, or disciplinary proceedings—since they are not subject to any inquiry that might lead to their being accused, arrested, tried, and, if found guilty, sentenced to appropriate penalties, and to making reparations to their victims.”
Only 59 of the 193 member-countries of the United Nations were included in the study. This was due to the availability of updated data on the three dimensions of impunity.
The measurement of the Index included 14 factors divided in three groups: five related to problems of public security, five to administration and delivery of justice, and four to violations of human rights.
The Philippines did not get good results in any of the 14 factors and had the worst “structure of the security system” and “security system of human rights.”
A matter of culture change
It was Corazon Miller, a Filipina-Kiwi and a nurse and freelance journalist, who first used the phrase “culture of impunity” to describe the Philippines.
In 2011, she published an article in The Common Good (www.catholicworker.org.nz) titled “The Philippines: A Culture of Impunity.”
Like James Fallows in his famous 1987 essay, “A Damaged Culture,” Ms. Miller lays the blame for the dismal impunity record on Filipino culture. Our entire system of values, beliefs and customs brought about this grotesque situation of crime and vice without punishment. Her study covered the ruling class, the political system, the military, and many other institutions.
Ending impunity, she concluded, is finally about culture change and national transformation.