UN Finds 'Deep-Seated Impunity' for Police Killings in Philippine Drug War

In a long-awaited report, the United Nations said that the policies of President Rodrigo Duterte’s government acted like a "permission to kill."
June 9, 2020, 4:39pm
Duterte during a press conference on November 19, 2019. Photo by Ted Aljibe / AFP.

Tens of thousands have died in the Philippine drug war, fatalities a new United Nations report found were boosted by the government’s “heavy-handed focus” on threats and the police’s ability to manipulate information in their case reports of extrajudicial killings.

Published on Thursday, June 4, the 26-page report on the situation of human rights in the Philippines follows through on a 2019 UN mandate for a comprehensive review amid international concern over the drug war. In July 2019, the UN’s Human Rights Council voted 18-14 (with 15 abstentions) in favour of the investigation, which Philippine officials fiercely opposed.

The much-awaited report is based on 893 written submissions, Philippine government input, police reports, court documents, and analysis of legislation, as well as interviews with victims and witnesses.

This comes four years into Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency and after multiple assurances from Duterte that killing drug suspects is all part of the police’s job.

UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet described the testimonies from victims' families as “heartbreaking.”

“Unfortunately, the report has documented deep-seated impunity for serious human rights violations and victims have been deprived of justice for the killings of their loved ones,” she said. “People who use or sell drugs do not lose their human rights."

The UN investigation raised doubts about the authenticity of police reports, having found that 22 fatal anti-drug operation police reports contained “strikingly similar language.” In these reports, descriptions of each victim’s alleged last words were often the same: "Putang ina mo pulis ka pala (Son of a bitch, you’re a cop)."

An examination of 25 fatal operations – in which police at each scene claimed to recover sachets of methamphetamine and guns allegedly used by victims to resist police officers – also showed that cops recovered guns bearing the same serial numbers from different victims in different locations. Two guns reappeared in five different crime scenes, suggesting that police were planting evidence, which the UN said casts doubt on police claims that they were acting in self defence.

The UN also found that the terms “negation” and “neutralization”’ of “drug personalities” appear throughout the government circular establishing the crackdown.

“Such ill-defined and ominous language, coupled with repeated verbal encouragement by the highest level of State officials to use lethal force, may have emboldened police to treat the circular as permission to kill,” the report states.

Official government figures claim that there have been 8,663 drug war-related killings since the crackdown started in July 2016, but independent estimates reach up to triple that number. Despite the systematic killing of thousands of suspected drug users and what the government claims are over 4,500 investigations, there has been only one conviction for the killing of a drug suspect by police since 2016: that of 17-year-old Kian de los Santos, whose killing by police in 2017 was caught on CCTV, igniting public outrage.

Apart from deaths under the police’s watch, there are also thousands of drug-related vigilante killings. The Philippine Supreme Court has demanded an explanation for the average of nearly 40 deaths per day from July 2016 to November 2017 and raised the possibility that the killings were state-sponsored. Police claim that only 9.4 percent of over 29,000 deaths labelled “deaths under inquiry” were drug-related.

According to the UN, widespread impunity for and familiarity of killings by vigilantes suggest “possible collusion” with police and local government officials in some submissions.

The UN also noted that the drug war is enforced through warrantless “house to house visitations” wherein suspects from a “drug watch list” are intimidated into making self-incriminating statements and to voluntary surrender. In addition to the killings, the report indicates that more than 223,000 “drug personalities” have been arrested since the start of Duterte’s term.

In 2016, the year Duterte was elected into office, he told officers, "Do not bullshit with me but do your duty, I will die for you. Do your duty and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you.”

The report also called out this type of pervasive, deeply damaging rhetoric from the highest levels of the Government, with some statements rising to the level of incitement of violence.

The UN laid out a series of recommendations to the government, from a repeal of a police circular containing the terminology of “neutralization” of drug suspects and abolition of “drug watch lists,” to the disbanding and disarming of all private and state-backed paramilitary groups.

It also recommended the empowerment of an independent body to conduct investigations into drug-related killings, and condemned the incitement of hatred and violence against government critics.

“It is vital the Government’s responses be grounded in human-rights approaches and guided by meaningful dialogue. Accountability and full transparency for alleged violations are essential for building public trust," Bachelet said.

The Philippine government has acknowledged the report but immediately rejected its findings. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said that while the Philippine government “notes the recommendations” made by the UN, it cannot commit to their full implementation given the “faulty conclusions on which they were premised.”

The report is due to be discussed at the next UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.