What happens when a human rights organization formed to promote one particular issue is blind to other related ones?

Here’s a cautionary case.

A French anti-death penalty organization, Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort, posted a link on Facebook in mid-July for the recently created page of the Spain-based International Commission Against the Death Penalty, suggesting à découvrir et à soutenir (discover and support).

Being an opponent of the death penalty, I readily went there.

And was horrified to find that the Commission’s profile picture on its Facebook page showed Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, former president of the Philippines (2001-2010) , whose record of abuses is second only to that of Ferdinand Marcos, standing next to some major luminaries in the international human rights movement.

They include Louise Arbour, who has been the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2004-2008), and previously Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. She is a former judge of the Supreme Court of Canada and is now President of the International Crisis Group.

And Asma Jahangir, one of the bravest lawyers in the world, a leading voice for human rights in Pakistan, who has been a UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions (1998-2004). She has been jailed under more than one regime and is now President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan.

As well as Robert Badinter, an eminent French constitutionalist, whose books L’Execution and L’Abolition are among the most important of anti-death penalty treatises, up there with the 18th Century Italian jurist Cesar Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments.

The Commission, headed by the former UNESCO director-general Federico Mayor Zaragoza, has other leading lights from politics, diplomacy and academia and was formed at the “initiative of the Spanish Government” as its website says. (

(In the picture alongside, Ms Arbour is at extreme right, Ms Arroyo in front of her, Mr Mayor next to her and Mr Badinter behind him. Ms Jahangir is not in this picture.)

What might have gone through Ms Arbour’s mind, seeing Ms Arroyo on the same panel? Ms Arbour who might have – ought to have – read numerous reports, while she was the UNHCHR, of massive human rights violations in the Philippines during the Arroyo administration. Ms Arbour would surely have looked at the report of Philip Alston, the former Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions after his Mission to the Philippines? (Professor Alston is one of the world’s foremost experts in international human rights law.) Links to his reports after his 2007 Mission to the Philippines can be found here: “Over the past six years, there have been many extrajudicial executions of leftist activists in the Philippines. These killings have eliminated civil society leaders, including human rights defenders, trade unionists and land reform advocates, intimidated a vast number of civil society actors, and narrowed the country’s political discourse. Depending on who is counting and how, the total number of such executions ranges from 100 to over 800,” the Alston report says at the outset.

Amnesty International too has been highly critical of Ms Arroyo:  “In the last eight years, hundreds of unlawful and often politically-motivated killings have taken place as well as enforced disappearances, often involving torture,” AI said in July 2009, referring to Arroyo’s reign, which was to end the following year. (​library/asset/ASA35/005/20​09/en/34fe872d-2f77-4504-a​60c-bcf27d14b211/asa350052​009eng.html)

The Asian Human Rights Commission has issued an open letter on July 26, expressing “deepest concern” over Ms Arroyo’s inclusion on the ICDP panel: (

“Her regime left hundreds, if not over a thousand of unresolved cases of extrajudicial and summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture and systematic threats and the intimidation of any person working for the protection of rights”, AHRC says.

It notes that “among the activists killed during Mrs. Arroyo’s term as President are those who had an important role in the movement for the abolition of the death penalty.” In fact, she was at times reported to have threatened to restart executions or even reinstate the death penalty.

Another damning report was by the Hong Kong Mission for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, made up of members from several institutions, including AHRC, Hong Kong Bar Association, Hong Kong Journalists Association, church and migrants’ groups:

During the Arroyo administration, the Philippines became one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, with scores of them killed, as Time magazine pointed out:,9171,1561201,00.html

The focus in this blog is on civil and political rights. And even here I’ve highlighted only a few abuses. As for violations of economic, social and cultural rights during the Arroyo regime, the list would be too long.

Condemnation of and prevention of extra-judicial killings needs to be on your radar, ICDP,  even if your primary preoccupation is with the wholly laudable objective of universal abolition of the death penalty.

Do Spanish taxpayers know that their country, which is in the grip of an economic crisis and with massive unemployment (of at least 21%) funds an organization which includes Ms Arroyo on its board, perhaps paying handsomely for her first class travel and attendance at meetings?

Was the Spanish embassy in Manila unaware that ICDP had offered membership to Ms Arroyo? Or was it complicit?

Is it quid pro quo for services rendered, for some contracts given to Spanish firms during Ms Arroyo’s term? Has the Spanish Socialist Workers Party of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero turned that cynical?

A senior Filipino journalist with a leading international news organization based elsewhere in Asia told me that Ms Arroyo’s membership of the Commission “will help deodorize” her. So what’ll it do to the Commission?

Her inclusion would have been laughable were it not deeply insulting to the memory of the hundreds of victims of her regime and for the families affected.

Supporters of human rights should acknowledge the truth about the Emperor’s New Clothes but equally about those of human rights activists and organizations, so to speak. This blog is written in that spirit.

It is unfortunate that ICDP failed to apply its mind (or was prevented from doing so by the Spanish government?) regarding its choice of Commissioners. It is unacceptable that ICDP and ECPM should be defending the inclusion of Ms Arroyo, during whose regime the Philippines experienced venality of a level bested only by the Marcos dictatorship.

Unfortunate and unacceptable: That’s putting it mildly.

About walkerjay

The author, N. Jayaram, a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi, was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions.
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  1. Milabel Cristobal says:

    Hi Jay,
    I used to say, “We no longer have the Death Penalty in the Philippines. It has been replaced on the ground with something more insidious, EJEs or extra judicial executions, especially with the resort now to simply rubbing them out of the face of the earth.” So misleading, so sad…. it should actually make people furious!


  2. Hi Jay, well written and with strong agruments, as usual. just one question, has this article reached the Spanish Commission in question and if yes, any reply have u got so far?

    and if not, do you think we should send it to them and demand one? (i am in to send one from my mailbox)

  3. walkerjay says:

    Hi Staphany,

    I sent it to their main email address. But got no response.
    Feel free to send your own communication.

    Best Wishes

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