- - Thursday, June 7, 2012

Two weeks ago in Manila, I had lunch with the mothers of Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeno, university students who disappeared in June 2006 while reportedly conducting research in Central Luzon. A witness described how the women were held in a military camp and brutally raped and tortured. To this day, they have not been found. As in other similar cases, the Philippine military accused the young women of being communist rebels, as if that excused the abuse.

Since 2001, security forces in the Philippines have been implicated in the torture, enforced disappearance and killing of hundreds of leftist activists, journalists and clergy. Under the previous administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, government security forces conducted a massive campaign targeting groups deemed to be Communist Party fronts and their alleged members and supporters. Since Benigno Aquino III was elected to office two years ago, the number of killings and disappearances implicating the military has gone down, but these abuses have not stopped.

Nor has there been adequate justice for the victims of past abuses. Despite Mr. Aquino’s promise of reform, a damaging climate of impunity persists, which the military fosters. Only seven cases of extrajudicial killings from the past decade have been successfully prosecuted - none since Mr. Aquino took power and none involving active duty military personnel.

What makes the Cadapan and Empeno cases different is that after six long years - and only due to the perseverance and courage of their families - two soldiers were finally arraigned April 23 for their kidnapping and illegal detention. While this is a positive step, these men are not in civilian custody but are being held in a military camp. And two others allegedly implicated in their disappearance, including retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, the commander in the area at the time, have evaded arrest. Human Rights Watch has received information that military and business interests are protecting Gen. Palparan.

On June 8, Mr. Aquino will meet President Obama in Washington. Mr. Aquino’s visit comes at a time when increased tensions in the South China Sea between the Philippines and China over disputed maritime waters and the Spratly Islands have pushed Manila and Washington even closer together. The United States and the Philippines already have a tight military relationship, with the U.S. providing $30 million in military assistance this year. Mr. Obama, however, should remember that a small portion of that aid, $3 million, remains conditioned upon the Philippines showing progress in investigating and prosecuting extrajudicial killings. So far, the Philippines has failed to meet the conditions because too often the perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, such as Gen. Palparan, remain at large.

The United States has used opportunities like the recent review of the Philippines‘ record at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva as an opportunity to raise concerns about impunity in the Philippines. But the U.S. passed up a chance to raise the issue at the U.S.-Philippines joint military exercises in April.

With growing military ties, the United States should make sure it uses every opportunity it has publicly and privately to reinforce the message about not tolerating abuses.

The public rhetoric of senior Philippine military officers has improved since Mr. Aquino took office. But the military hasn’t improved its cooperation with investigating authorities, carried out comprehensive internal investigations of implicated military personnel, or increased openness within the military structure. The military continues to deny outright the vast majority of allegations against soldiers implicated in killings and enforced disappearances and has not reformed the policies and practices that foster an environment in which such abuses are tolerated.

I asked the mothers of Sherlyn and Karen if they had a message for Mr. Aquino. Mrs. Cadapan told me, “We love our daughters. For years, we’ve been asking different agencies, the [Philippine National Police], the [National Bureau of Investigation] to help us. We didn’t get any reply from the last president. Please help us by giving orders to concerned authorities to arrest Palparan ASAP.”

Mr. Aquino should reflect on these words. He knows what it means to lose a loved one to an abusive military - his father was assassinated when Mr. Aquino was 23. Mr. Obama should also tell Mr. Aquino that a commander in chief is obliged to send a clear message from the top that abuses are not tolerated and that abusers will be held accountable. Only then will the Philippine military have a professional armed force that respects rights and be a reliable strategic partner for the United States.

Elaine Pearson is deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.