Under the new law which was passed by Congress two months ago ... the abduction of individuals by state officials is illegal.
The Philippines human rights group Karapatan has documented more than one thousand enforced disappearances since the end of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
It says 12 cases have been reported during the term of president Aquino and more than 200 under his predecessor Gloria Arroyo.
Correspondent: Kanaha Sabapathy
Speaker: Dr Steve Rood, Philippines country director for Asia Foundation
ROOD: Part of the counter-insurgency campaign in the past has been to try to separate the armed insurgents, who are underground and of course illegal, from the illegal activities and by having a threat against legal workers who have no crime regarded against them, it tries to break the support of the underground insurgency.
SABAPATHY: So are they only after the communist insurgents? What about journalists for example who maybe are not reporting in favour of the government for example?
ROOD: Well the problem in journalists tends to be two-fold; they are local journalists who get into trouble with the local administration rather than with the national government apparatus, and secondly they tend not to disappear, but rather to be killed outright as a way of trying to silence criticism. So the disappearance problem tends to be a much more political one connected to the counter-insurgency campaign. When a counter-insurgency campaign heats up, as it did under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, then the number of enforced disappearances skyrockets. When under President Aquino the military and the internal security apparatus tries to take a more human rights focus, then it goes down. But unfortunately it's not yet zero and that's why this law will be very important.
SABAPATHY: And what sort of treatment are these people given during the period of enforced disappearance?
ROOD: Well we actually don't know much about it because most of those who have disappeared have never been found again. Some have surfaced alive, but only about ten to 15 per cent, and they tend to report interrogation and torture and isolation and being moved from place to place so that they can't be found by their family or by lawyers looking for them.
SABAPATHY: For those who return, what sort of evidence was used against them when they were abducted?
ROOD: Well unfortunately it tends to have been a practice in the past of the military using its intelligence asset to come up with a list, a so-called order of battle. And this would list people not only in the underground armed insurgency, but also those who are sympathetic or those even just working with workers and farmers. And being on those lists would be a reason for being picked up and disappeared. Now the new law bans those kinds of lists and holds military commanders responsible if those lists are ever made. So the idea is to begin to discourage this kind of targeted abduction of people who cannot be charged with a normal crime.
SABAPATHY: And why has it taken the government so long to get this law into place?
ROOD: Well it's been quite a long process and for instance the Supreme Court independence judicial body held a summit meeting of many sectors back in 2007 about extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances, and based on that issued a few court orders so that it provides extra protection beyond a writ of habeas corpus. The current secretary of justice when she was chairman of the commission on human rights, did indeed champion this law for many years. The law has passed the Lower House of Representatives several times over the past few years, but this is the first time that it got through the Senate. And then of course President Aquino signed it.
SABAPATHY: And has the law gone far enough to ensure that this sort of abductions do not happen ever?
ROOD: Well in terms of legal protection it's actually useful. It for instance calls for a total inventory of all places of detention throughout the country so that it makes it easier for people not only to search for the people who've been disappeared, but also to protect against other human rights violations, such as torture. The problem in the Philippines as always is in the matter of enforcement. The courts are very slow, conviction rates are low, and so we'll have to see whether going forward the enforcement of this law is as vigorous as the provisions would allow.
SABAPATHY: And quickly do we know what punishment the perpetrators would face?
ROOD: Well they actually face lengthy jail terms and they're not allowed to be amnestied out. So it's meant to be quite severe. And then beyond that there are other penalties, such as civil penalties, families could sue for damages and so on beyond the criminal penalties.