by Rodney Jaleco

Last week, Philippine Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. issued a statement that got relatively scant attention, lauding the conviction of two men who murdered journalists.

News about the conviction of confessed triggerman Marlon Recamata for the 2011 killing of environmental activist and broadcaster Dr. Gerry Ortega and Clarito Arizobal for the 2004 murder of Bicol journaliust Rowell Endrinal appeared to draw more international interest than in the Philippines itself.

Human rights groups and even the State Department have bewailed the “culture of impunity” in the country – something that leaders in Manila have challenged vigorously. That “culture” has been blamed for the government’s failures to stop extrajudicial killings, human rights abuses, graft, human trafficking, intellectual property theft and host of other ills that has tarnished an otherwise cozy relationship with Washington.

“These convictions are much-awaited developments that show that the Philippines is heading toward the right direction,” Cuisia declared.

Still he admitted the country “still has a long way to go when it comes to human rights” but the recent convictions left “no room for doubt about the Aquino administration’s firm resolve to put an end to the culture of impunity.”

Before Gloria Macapagal Arroyo stepped down from the presidency, she was pummeled by human rights activists who blame her for about 800 murders, forced disappearances and torture of churchmen, journalists, labor organizers and peasant leaders. The US virtually censured her administration when Capitol Hill imposed conditions on the grant of military aid and made it difficult for her to close a multi-million-dollar Compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

But the blame can’t all be heaped on Arroyo or even on her successor, Pres. Benigno Aquino III who has detained the former president and vowed to crack down against extrajudicial killings and other abuses.

That there is a “culture” that makes this difficult is true. Filipinos seem to be enamored by pop American crime shows like “CSI” or “NCIS” where cases are resolved and prisoners thrown behind bars in the span of one episode.

The top Philippines news and current affairs shows, when they tackle crime stories, are not shy on revealing all the gory details but usually consider the “case closed” after a suspect is tagged or arrested by the police. The coverage of trials is limited to the big, sensational cases, usually when there are some wealthy or well-known celebrities involved.

There is little patience from the public, and there’s not enough support (or motivation) for the courts to produce what the government’s critics abroad ultimately use as a yardstick – the number of convictions. It seems Filipinos still need to learn the concept of crime and punishment.

Significantly, the convictions of Recamata and Arizobal are the first ever since President Aquino took office 3 years ago. That leaves about 150 other cases (the NGO Karapatan says the number is close to 1,200) of extrajudicial killings he inherited from his much-maligned predecessor that have yet to get anywhere in the courts.

That has opened his administration to charges of ineptitude and their indignant denials, pointing to arrests or the fewer killings today, are futile. Only convictions count, the reckoning of deeds, the punishment of culprits.

In the Ortega case for instance, the Aquino administration fails because the masterminds – former Palawan Gov. Mario Joel Reyes and his brother former Mayor Mario Reyes continue to elude justice (along with former army Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, a chief suspect in political killings in Central Luzon).

Whether it’s trying to keep off the human trafficking watch list or burnishing the country’s IPR reputation, convictions are crucial.

Near the end of this month, the Philippines comes for its universal periodic review, a process one once every 4 years by the United Nations Human Rights Council. It will only be the 2nd time the country will undergo the review, and will determine if the Philippines has lived up to its commitments.

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