The UN blamed the Philippine military yesterday for many of the political murders that have rocked the country and pressed President Gloria Arroyo to rein in the amount of bloodshed.
Wrapping up an investigation into what rights groups say are more than 800 political assassinations, UN special envoy Philip Alston said many of the killings stemmed from the military's campaign against left-wing guerrillas.
Alston said the government was responsible for a climate of impunity but said he did not have evidence to support allegations by the nation's leading human-rights group that Arroyo had ordered or condoned the murders.
"The increase in extrajudicial executions in recent years is attributable, at least in part, to a shift in the military's counter-insurgency strategy," Alston told reporters.
"In some areas, an appeal to hearts and minds is combined with an attempt to vilify left-leaning organizations and to intimidate leaders of such organizations," he said.
"In some instances, such intimidation escalates into extrajudicial executions," he said -- adding that many of the killings had been "convincingly attributed" to the military, which he said was in "almost total denial."
Philippine forces have been battling for decades against communist insurgents who effectively control parts of this vast island nation and fund their activities by extorting "taxes" from shops and businesses.
Local rights group Karapatan says more than 830 people have been murdered for political motives since Arroyo came to power in 2001 -- many of them leftists, and some of them accused by the army of links to the guerrillas.
The military, one of the most powerful institutions in the country, has accused rights groups of inflating the numbers of victims and said that many of those listed as dead were guerrillas killed in clashes with the armed forces.
But Alston said that, while leftist organizations were also guilty of propaganda, most of the cases they presented "proved credible under cross-examination."
He declined to give an overall tally of the killings but said: "I am certain the number is high enough to be distressing."
Lieutenant Colonel Bartolome Bacarro, a military spokesman, said at least four soldiers were being investigated, and that one had been officially charged, but declined to comment when asked if Alston's remarks were unfair.
The Australian-born lawyer, who met Arroyo and members of her Cabinet as well as families of victims during his almost two-week mission, said he did not think that orders for the murders had come from on high.
"I do not believe that there is a policy at the top designed to, or which directs, that these killings take place," Alston said.
"I am clear on that," he added.
Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said Arroyo should persuade the military to improve its reputation "by acknowledging the facts and take genuine steps to investigate."