PH gov’t sued in UN rights body

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Photo by Mario Ignacio IV/VERA Files

By Mikha Flores, VERA Files

Election watchdogs and civil society organizations filed a complaint against the Commission on Elections before an international human rights body on Friday for allegedly compromising the May 13 elections and violating their right to vote.

A group of 33 individuals from civil society groups filed a 52-page complaint before the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) questioning the Comelec’s decisions which they said cast doubts on the credibility of the upcoming automated polls.

They said the Philippine government violated and continues to violate their right to vote freely when they gave complete control of the technical aspects of the automated election system (AES) to Smartmatic, the supplier of the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines to be used in the 2013 elections.

The move compromised the “secrecy, security and validity” of their votes, they added.

As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Philippines has the “obligation to ensure the authors’ right to free expression of their will as electors”, the complainants noted in their petition.

“In reality, Comelec has no ability to implement an automated election,” Lawyer Harry Roque, lead counsel for the complainants, said. “You can see it in the glitches and when mishaps happen, they always turn to Smartmatic for technical support,” he told reporters in Pilipino.

The Philippine government also compromised votes when it entrusted both public and private security keys to Smartmatic. Having access to the keys would make Smartmatic capable of rigging election results, the complainants said.

Under the law, Roque said, the private key should be entrusted to an entity like Smartmatic but the public keys should be given to Board of Election Inspectors. The lack of a source code review also makes the PCOS machines vulnerable to fraud, the complaint said.

The source code is a set of human readable instructions that lists the commands and functions of a machine. The release of the PCOS source code for review has been held up by a lawsuit in a U.S court between Dominion Voting Systems, developer of the technology, and Smartmatic.

Roque said they brought the case before the international body since they have exhausted all legal remedies available in the country. This legal challenge against the country’s election system, he pointed out, is “unprecedented” in the UN body.

Comelec Chairman Sixto Brillantes dismissed the move as a ‘publicity stunt’ which the poll body intends to ignore. “We are too close to the elections to pay any attention to their case.”

Roque admits the decision of the UNHRC, a body of international human rights experts, is “technically nonbinding” but he said the courts listen to the expert opinions of the UNHRC.

Leaders of civil society groups cited their reasons for joining the complaint.

Information Technology expert Joey Pengson said the AES system of Smartmatic and Comelec does not follow the “best practices” in the industry.

Renato Reyes of Kontra Daya said the credibility of elections has been compromised since the system is “privatized” and “foreign controlled”.

The other complainants include former Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr., former Comelec Commissioner Augusto Lagman and former Comelec officials Melchor Magdamo and Ernesto Del Rosario.

In a related development, two experts questioned the Comelec’s random manual audit (RMA) as being unscientific.

Under RA 9369 or the Automation Law, Comelec should conduct a random manual audit in at least one precinct for every legislative district. For the May 13 elections, the poll body will select 234 precincts for the RMA based on a program designed by the National Statistics Office.

Felix Muga, a mathematics professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, told VERA Files on Friday the chances of polling precincts in small and large provinces getting selected for manual audit are uneven.

He cited an example where a clustered precinct in Batanes will have a different probability than a clustered precinct in Quezon City’s second district. Batanes’ lone district has 31 grouped precincts while Quezon City’s second district has 251 clustered precincts.

The Batanes precinct will have one in 31 chances or 3.23 percent of being selected while the Quezon City polling place will have one in 251 tries or 0.40 percent. “Dapat the same weight (It should have the same weight),” Muga said adding that every clustered precinct should have an equal chance of getting selected.

Ernesto Del Rosario, Comelec’s former Information Technology Department Head, also said Comelec’s RMA design is “neither manual nor an audit” and described it as something statisticians will frown on.

“Wala kang magiging conclusion which you can defend scientifically (You will not have any conclusion which you can defend scientifically),” Del Rosario said.

According to Del Rosario, the sample size would depend on an elective position’s “sampling universe”, whether the position is national or local. He said each elective position should have separate audits. “Iba-iba yan (They are different),” he said.

(VERA Files is put out by senior journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true”.)

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