Foreign Policy Blogs

Elections, Militias, and a Culture of Impunity

Elections are events that always garner attention. Whether its to see how a particular politician will fare, what direction a country may be headed with its policies, or as a barometer of corruption, elections are covered by the world media regardless of where they occur. Unfortunately, there are places where election coverage can only achieve negative coverage, where politics is a dangerous national exercise no matter which side you are on.

Such is the case in the Philippines, where last week at least 57 people were massacred by gunmen as they traveled to file candidacy papers for a provincial election next year. The primary politician involved, Ismael Mangudadatu, had received death threats when he announced his plans to run in the 2010 election. So he sent a convoy of journalists and relatives, including his wife and two sisters, to file his candidacy papers for him. On Monday that convoy was stopped by armed gunmen and its occupants killed at the side of the road. Further investigation showed that many of the women were sexually mutilated before being buried in shallow graves near by. Violence is a common element in politics in a country that ranks as one of the most dangerous in the world for journalists, but last week’s massacre shocked even those who have come to accept election-related violence as normal.

While international observers condemn the violence and the Philippine government rushes to bring those responsible to justice (or at least appear that they are doing so), the larger questions of what happened still remain. Similar to the 2007 election violence in Kenya, though more brutal than normal the event itself was not uncommon. In Kenya, at least 1300 people were killed and nearly 600,000 displaced before the world started to pay attention to the cycle of corruption and violence that defined Kenyan presidential elections.

That attention has led to a formal investigation by the International Criminal Court that will likely result in the prosecution of some key politicians who coordinated the violence. Yet the investigation of the ICC is a bit like trying to fix the problem by placing a band-aid on a gunshot wound; while it will remove from the scene some key players from this past election cycle, it doesn’t address the underlying culture that allowed the violence to occur around the 2007 election (as well as the elections in 1992, 1997, and 2001), and will likely do nothing but make some people feel better about the situation in the meantime.

The Philippines finds itself in the same situation. It is undoubtedly important to investigate last week’s massacre and prosecute those responsible, but the massacre is just one incident in a long history of politically related violence. Only by taking a holistic approach and addressing the underlying culture of impunity that allows this violence to occur will there be any significant change to the situation. Until then, the political rights enshrined in the country’s constitution and international instruments such as the Convention on Civil and Political Rights will mean little, as the exercise of those rights will still require people to risk their lives.

This is not an easy task, and requires the cooperation of many adverse parties for the benefit of the whole. However, courage can count for a lot too. Ismael Mangudadatu, whose potential candidacy was the reason for the violence, refused to back down. On Friday he went ahead and filed his candidacy papers that will allow him to run for governor next year. In doing so, he stood up not only for his interests, but for the interests of all his countrymen, regardless of political affiliation.

One can only hope that the powers that be in the Philippines can find that same courage in the near future.



Kimberly J. Curtis
Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa

Great Decisions Discussion group