MANILA, Philippines - International rights group Human Rights Watch on Wednesday blamed the Philippine government for allowing the proliferation of private armies of political leaders, which resulted in the "horrendous" massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao province last November.
Speaking at the launch of its 2010 World Report, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said the Maguindanao massacre was the product of "two troubling trends" that the Philippine government has allowed to proceed.
He said these trends are the emergence of private armies at the behest of political figures and an atmosphere of impunity that allows human rights abusers to remain unpunished.
Roth said private armies are extremely dangerous "because it means that there are people with political motives who are taking the law into their own hands."
In the case of the Maguindanao massacre, he said: "This was an extreme case to go and murder the opposition and all witnesses but you almost invite that when you allow these private armies to exist."
In its annual report, Human Rights Watch tagged the November 23 massacre as "the worst apparent politically motivated violence in recent history."
At least 57 people were killed in the massacre allegedly perpetrated by a private army under the control of the powerful Ampatuan clan. The victims were en route to file Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu's certificate of candidacy for governor in the May 2010 elections.
Roth, meanwhile, said a separate Human Rights Watch report issued earlier also criticized the operations of so-called death squads that are targeting criminal elements in Davao City.
Roth said that while Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has tolerated the operation of the death squads, the Arroyo administration has done nothing to bring the murderers to justice.
"When you combine private armies with impunity for violence in various forms – whether it is political violence or this is kind of social cleansing that seems to be behind the Davao City Death Squads, that’s a recipe for these kinds of disasters, massacres to occur," he said.
In the annual report, Human Rights Watch listed at least 89 murders perpetrated by the Davao Death Squad from January to early September 2009, bringing the total to more than 926 victims since 1998.
It noted that similar killings of petty criminals, drug dealers, gang members and street children are now occurring in General Santos City, Digos City, Tagum City and Cebu City.
The Commission on Human Rights recently set up a multi-agency task force involving police, military, and other government agencies to conduct investigations. The task force has uncovered human remains, guns, and ammunition on land belonging to a former police officer, but in the courts, it has faced obstructions and unnecessary bureaucratic delays.
The Human Rights Watch report, meanwhile, noted efforts done by the Philippine government to address the issue of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
It noted that at least 11 people have been convicted for these extrajudicial killings including Police Superintendent Rafael Cardeno, main suspect in the murder of Young Officers Union spokesman Baron Cervantes; and Joy Anticamara, suspect in the murder of radioman Armando Pace.