The production of impunity

The word “impunity” simply means “without punishment,” or exempted from penalty—in reference to acts that normally require accountability and punishment.  In the vocabulary of human rights advocacy, however, the term has a more textured meaning, reflecting the complex challenges that human rights activists have had to face over the years in societies wracked by political violence.

Drawing from her extensive work on the culture and politics of human rights activism in Colombia, anthropologist Winifred Tate offers the following definition: “Impunity is defined by absence: the lack of punishment and sanction for the perpetrator of an abuse and the failure to provide reparations for the victims.  Impunity can be produced by indifference, inadequate information, or ignorance of the abuse, as well as by active obstruction of investigations and legal proceedings.” (Tate, “Counting the Dead,” 2007)

Here, in this usage, impunity is no longer treated only as the result of a failure to take notice or to assume responsibility for a wrongful act; rather, it is something that can be actively produced, either deliberately or unintentionally.

For example, far from being merely a default response, public indifference can now be seen as something that is cultivated or reinforced by tapping into stereotype images of the victims.  I think it has made a lot of difference to the way the Filipino public reacts to the daily extrajudicial killings in the last five months that the victims have mostly been unorganized individuals from the slums with no visible employment or stable family life.  It is disturbing to note that many view the victims as the expendable dregs of society who, in life, posed a constant menace to ordinary citizens.  If they were killed with impunity, then so be it.  As far as decent people are concerned, that is a public secret that is not worth talking about or investigating.

The neighbors might often talk about these things in knowing whispers, but they would not come forward as witnesses.  Indeed, beneath their breath, they might even communicate a complicit acceptance of the inevitability of these deaths—as something that the victims themselves tacitly chose by the way they lived.  By such depictions is impunity produced and reproduced.

Underpinning this line of reasoning is the view that human rights are reserved for human beings.  Excluded from this category are the “subhuman” types who not only choose to live differently but also, more importantly, do untold harm to the rest of society.  To recognize and defend their human rights is to disrespect the human rights of their victims.  This is a view, as we all know, that President Duterte, more than any other public official, has articulated in countless public appearances as a core message of his brutal war on drugs.

This attitude contradicts the basic philosophy of human rights, which teaches the essential inclusivity of the human community as one of the highest achievements of modern civilization.  But, alas, the reality is that most Filipinos can and do identify with it.  Perhaps, it is not difficult to explain why.

The great strides made by human rights activism, notably during the decades of the ‘70s and ‘80s, took place in the context of larger political struggles.  The victims of summary killings or “salvagings,” as we called them, were invariably political activists themselves—individuals who were not only opposing dictatorship but were fighting for a vision of a better society as well.  In contrast, victims in the ongoing war on drugs cannot claim any redemptive purpose, and therefore cannot occupy the same hallowed ground.

In Colombia, where the war against revolutionary activists intersected at various points with the war against narcotrafficers, Tate reports that she met political activists who sincerely believed that human rights activism was too narrowly focused, and should not be allowed to overshadow the comprehensive struggle for an alternative social order.  The obvious subtext here is that the summary execution of drug dealers and pushers cannot be compared to the killing of social activists.  Accordingly, time and effort spent in defense of the human rights of drug traffickers cannot be anything more than a fruitless liberal gesture.

But, apart from this, as the Tate study reveals, one of the more ironic ways by which impunity is produced is by burying human rights cases in complex rituals of official investigations that yield no definite findings or conclusions.  “By channeling concern about human rights cases into an endless loop of bureaucratic programs, state human rights agencies often serve to minimize effective action in human rights cases.  In some cases, these are literally empty gestures, with committees that never meet and offices that are never staffed, with zero budget allocations or no actual programs.”

What quickly come to mind in our case are the inconclusive reports from the recent Senate hearings on extrajudicial killings and the hitherto unheralded investigation conducted by the Department of Interior and Local Government.  By failing to pinpoint responsibility, and, in the case of the Senate hearings, by spending more time trying to uncover the supposed links of Sen. Leila de Lima to drug dealers, they may have unwittingly served the cause of impunity.

We have yet to hear from the Commission on Human Rights.  Despite every effort to intimidate its leadership, I continue to hope that the commission, whose mandate arose from the great struggle against impunity during the Marcos dictatorship, would be different.