Since the Philippines escalated its “drug war” in June of last year, over 3,900 people have been killed in anti-drug operations, with nearly 2,300 more drug-related murders and thousands still “unexplained,” according to police reports. Estimates by media and human rights groups for the total drug war killings have ranged from 7,000 up to 14,000. Though the Duterte administration recently suspended most police participation in its drug war, it has done so before, with unclear impact. Appearance suggests there may be a deliberate policy of extrajudicial killing.
Officials insist drug suspects get killed from resisting arrest, and that other drug-related killings are from criminal gang fights. But authorities have opened investigations into just 1% of the acknowledged police killings, and initiated no prosecutions from them. Many believe government-linked vigilantes or police account for some of the drug-related and unexplained killings. Additional facts raise questions. The Philippines saw a 50% increase in the official homicide rate starting that June.10 Video shows police killing Kian delos Santos, an unarmed, cooperating 17-year old – one of 54 known cases of children under 18 killed in the Philippine drug war, including an infant.
International NGOs and the Philippines’ own human rights defenders have documented many abuses, including incentive payments for killing. We call for a process of accountability, starting with a UN-led investigation. The first venue for justice is a nation’s own courts. If a government is unwilling or unable to seek justice, treaties allow for intervention by the International Criminal Court, or a similar body chartered for the situation. But the road to international justice is lengthy. In the immediate present, the most feasible step forward is an investigation led by the UN. Such an
investigation would probe the nature and scale of the alleged crimes, while giving priority to protecting witnesses and investigators. Should the Philippine government not allow this to proceed, a UN Commission of Inquiry could be formed to gather facts.
An investigation would look for the mid-level organizers and the individuals implementing policies or practices on the ground. But it would also seek out the leaders. In that context, it is impossible to ignore words publicly spoken by Duterte himself. The president has repeatedly called for mass killings, and promised to protect police from prosecution.17 He has even threatened to kill human rights activists. Even in the absence of known official orders, international law considers inducement to commit murder a basis to hold individuals criminally responsible for that crime.
It is similarly impossible to ignore Duterte’s reputed ties as mayor to the infamous Davao Death Squad.
Investigators would likewise probe the possible roles of key administration officials such as Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre. The situation in the Philippines makes a purely internal solution unlikely, at least for now. Human rights defenders, attorneys and journalists have attempted to respond to the crisis, but faced retaliation. The list of incidents in which political leaders who have criticized the administration’s drug policies have been targeted is long enough to raise questions about the motivation for the attacks. After Senator Leila de Lima organized testimony in the Justice Committee from a confessed former member of the Davao Death Squad, Edgar Matobato, she was jailed based primarily on accounts from drug traffickers she’d helped incarcerate.23 Vice President Leni Robredo has faced the threat of impeachment since providing a video criticizing the killings for an event at the UN.24 The Supreme Court Chief Justice and the Ombudsman, both critics of the killings, are facing impeachments. After Senator Risa Hontiveros arranged protective custody for witnesses to the delos Santos killing, a legislator accused her of kidnapping because they are minors, and administration prosecutors have treated the spurious argument with credence.
Duterte has threatened to “destroy” Senator Antonio Trillanes, a critic of the killings who has accused the president as well as his son of additional crimes. By contrast, an impeachment filing against the president was quickly dismissed by a committee of the House of Representatives, ostensibly for its reliance on news reports.28 Aguirre’s response to Matobato, and to similar testimony by retired officer Arturo Lascañas, was to seek their arrest. But Aguirre took no action against the president, whom they’d also implicated. We call on the world to take decisive actions to stop the killings and encourage better policies. A statement of concern by 39 countries at the Human Rights Council underlines the seriousness of this situation.
So does the rejection or non-commitment by the Philippine government to many of the Council’s recommendations. The world should act with the urgency this suggests. We therefore call on the UN, international donors – including the US, EU, Canada, western European states, Japan, and Australia – and other governments or organizations with ties to the Philippines, to bring their financial and diplomatic leverage to bear on this. At a minimum, donor states should condition most law enforcement assistance on upholding human rights norms. We likewise call on world leaders attending the ASEAN Summit to unequivocally call for an end to the killings and for human rights to be respected. ASEAN itself should end its silence on this matter. Leaders should warn other countries against adopting similar tactics.
The international community should promote the right to health, by funding evidence-based alternatives to the drug war in the Philippines. We finally urge the international community to fund Philippine human rights defenders, at a level matching the crisis. In September the House voted to defund the nation’s Commission on Human Rights – later reinstating funds, but at a lower level and with conditions.33 The future of rule of law in the Philippines may depend on the work of the CHR and its allies. The world is at a crossroads. The UN Charter, supreme among treaties, lists human rights among the few supreme obligations of states. But support for this global system of responsibilities and rights has become uncertain.
At this uncertain time, lawlessness and extrajudicial violence must not become a model for more countries. When human rights are attacked, all are called on to act – by individual conscience, age-old moral principles, and the global agreements seeking peace and security for all. The time for action is now.