Over 3,500 people have died in the Philippines’ war on drugs since President Rodrigo Duterte’s inauguration in June. In response to this alarming number of deaths, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter calling for the Filipino government to initiate a United Nations-led investigation into President Duterte’s involvement in extrajudicial killings and the lack of accountability for abuses by government security forces.
The letter also highlighted other human rights violations in the Philippines, including the rights of indigenous peoples and ethnic and religious minorities, internal displacement, reproductive health, children’s rights, and the health rights implications of the worsening HIV epidemic.
Before taking office as President, President Duterte was the mayor of Davao City, controversial for his support of “death squads” or men hired by the government to kill criminals, rapists, and drug traffickers. Since taking office, President Duterte has become even more controversial by promising to reinstate the death penalty and oversee a wave of extrajudicial executions in addition to intimidating journalists and human rights defenders.
President Duterte described his country’s drug addiction as a pandemic and is committing his presidency to ridding the country of its 3,000,000 drug addicts in order to bring about prosperity. In an interview with Al Jazeera he said, “You destroy my country, I’ll kill you. And it’s a legitimate thing. If you destroy our young children, I will kill you…There is nothing wrong in trying to preserve the interest of the next generation.” Despite how shocking these statements sound to an international audience, however, President Duterte’s approval rating is at eighty-three percent.
President Duterte’s overt support of the killing of drug dealers and drug users gives both the Philippines police and vigilantes a “‘license to kill’ without any fear of accountability for their actions,” says Human Rights Watch. This period of turmoil within the country’s legal system, allows police officers to kill suspects on the spot, later claiming the suspects were resisting arrest and that the police officers had to respond to the suspects’ shots out of self-defense. The Secretary General of FLAG, an organization offering assistance to citizens who are victims of President Duterte’s war on drugs condemned President Duterte’s war on drugs: “By undertaking tactics … such as killing rather than arresting suspects and bringing them before the bar of justice, law enforcement officials are betraying public trust.”
The steadily increasing number of deaths in the Philippines war on drugs, in combination with President Duterte’s offensive comments directed at various religious and political groups around the world, and growing concerns from within the Philippine government itself have attracted the concern of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The ICC, to which the Philippines is a party, is an international court that investigates and prosecutes crimes of genocide, war crimes, and crimes stemming from human rights violations. In a recent statement from ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, the extrajudicial killings occurring in the Philippines may fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC, if it can determine the killings are being carried out in accordance with a policy established by the State.
The Philippines is also a party to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the ICCPR. Both conventions protect the interests of civilians, prevent mistreatment of suspects taken into custody, and require fair and impartial trials for any person accused of a crime. However, as Human Rights Watch emphasizes in its letter to President Duterte, since 2001, the Philippines has only convicted one solider of a human rights abuse case, despite the hundreds of cases of human rights groups have documented.
President Duterte acknowledges that many innocent lives have been lost because of his campaign against drugs, but justifies these deaths as “collateral damage”. In the above-mentioned interview with Al Jazeera, President Duterte likened the innocent victims of his war on drugs to the civilian deaths of United States’ war on terror. President Duterte said, “When you bomb a village, you intend to kill the militants, but you kill in the process the children there.”
President Duterte rejected the responsibility of honoring human rights in his country with respect to drug users and drug dealers. In a derogatory comment condemning human rights as a priority of his presidency, President Duterte said, “[i]f the criminals are killed by the thousands, that’s not my problem. My problem is how to take care of the law-abiding, God-fearing young persons of this Republic because they are our resources.”
President Duterte’s war on drugs is undoubtedly claiming a staggering number lives; however, Filipinos elected President Duterte because many citizens believed in his end goal, even if not in total agreement with his way of getting there. A supporter of President Duterte said: “The people killed are the dirt of society. What Duterte’s doing, his war on illegal drugs, is right.” Only time will tell where the President Duterte’s lead will take the country in the next six years of his term as President of the Philippines and how both domestic and international human rights groups will respond.