The case-study under analysis deals with the arbitrary use of force employed by the Philippine Government in the name of the “war-on-drugs”, as a result of a 2015 survey according to which around 1.8 million people in the Philippines were drug users

The present research has been conducted with a concern regarding the death of over 12.000 Philippines since the taking of office of President Duterte and his call for the anti-drug campaign. In theory, a strategy targeted against drug dealers and users, but in practice a campaign of extrajudicial killings in impoverished and urban areas of the country; indeed, the victims of drug-related killings were poor and mainly not drug dealers at all. Duterte’s words never left space for misunderstandings as his purpose was clear from the beginning when he claimed, aiming at the drug dealers: “My order is to shoot to kill you. I don’t care about human rights, you better believe me.” As it will be further demonstrated, violent law enforcement measures breached the right to live in a way that is not permissible under the applicable international human rights law.  


Factual situation

After coming into office of the president Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, the human rights situation has been deteriorating in the Philippines. In the course of the anti-drug campaign known as “Operation Double Barrel” aimed at targeting suspected drug dealers and users, a pattern of extrajudicial executions in destitute areas of the country has been identified; and there have also been multiple instances of attacks against political opponents and journalists

Apart from killings by police, executions by motorcycle-riding assailants are still ongoing and such killings by unidentified vigilantes have been repeatedly linked back to the police.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, acting on a resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2019, reported more than 8,600 people have died in Duterte’s “drug war”; and human rights groups believe the actual number could be triple. Only one case out of thousands has resulted in the conviction of police officers, and in fact widespread impunity for ongoing violations in the “war on drugs” and the broader situation in the country have further emboldened the government to pursue new policies and actions that undermine human rights. Domestic accountability measures are flawed and have no prospect of ending the violations, and killings continue to be encouraged from the very top


In the case-study paper, to analyse one instance of police officers’ use of force, a specific event is considered, and it derives from a report which is the result of a study conducted by Amnesty International in the Philippines’ context of the above-mentioned extrajudicial executions. The case was named “he was only washing dishes” and occurred on the evening of 2 December 2019. According to the evidence collected thanks to witnesses, gunshots were followed by a last one that lead eventually to the death of Mark Anthony Ruivivar, who was washing dishes outside his house in Quezon city and when the last bullet shot him he had his arms raised. His family recognized he previously used drugs and was told by the village’s authorities that he might not have been included in the “drug watch list” because he was working. The police officials stated that he was responsible for having committed a rubbery and a murder in Quezon City; and that once the police showed off that night, he fired on them


Applicable paradigm 

It is of underlying importance to note that the Government of the Philippines is involved in multiple armed conflicts of non-international character. Nevertheless, the paradigm that governs the given context is not that of hostilities allowing lethal force to be directed against lawful targets as first resort, but rather the law enforcement paradigm which relies on the concept of humanity. There is in fact no link between the extrajudicial killings and the armed conflicts: the “war on drugs” has neither been conducted because of the NIACs, nor its occurrence is reliant on the armed conflict situation and moreover, the victims are not legitimate military targets in an armed conflict.  

Among the basic responsibilities, law enforcement encompasses the prevention and detection of crimes and with a view to fulfilling such mission, law enforcement officials may exercise several of the powers they own by way of complying with the core principles that characterize the paradigm.


Applicable rules and principles 

It is salient to acknowledge that the obligation of law enforcement officials, including all officers of the law who exercise police powers, is that to respect and protect the life and security of all persons. Standard operating procedures for law enforcement officials need to be compatible with international standards of use of force and transformed into rules of engagement. Those officials may resort to the use of force when all other means of achieving a legitimate objective have failed (principle of necessity), and the use of force can be justified (principle of proportionality) in terms of the importance of the legitimate objective to be achieved (principle of legality). According to the general duty of precaution, law enforcement operations need to be planned, prepared and conducted so as to minimize to the greatest extent as possible the resort to force. In this regard, two soft-law instruments are relevant. One is the “Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials”, and in the wake of the commentary of article 3 “[…] law enforcement officials may be authorized to use force as is reasonably necessary under the circumstances for the prevention of crime or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders, no force going beyond that may be used.” The second tool is given by the “UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials” which clarify the grounds upon which potential and intentional lethal force are justified. Relevant applicable law derives also from human rights law, in the form of guarantees provided by several rights, including the inderogable right to life enshrined in article 6 of the ICCPR and designated as “supreme right”. Whereas the derogations of rights provided for under the ICCPR, to which the Philippines is a party, need to fulfil specific requirements



The author will now take into consideration a specific event, entitled in Amnesty International’s report “he was only washing dishes”, which will be evaluated in light of the applicable law identified. 

In assessing the situation, the question is whether the operation was organized and planned in a way that respected the requirements of the right to life and whether the information given to the police rendered inevitable the use of lethal force and took into account the right to life of Mr Ruivivar. 

From the witness’ evidence, it is clear that the police were trained to kill him observing that even when he raised the arms, and therefore surrendered without representing a serious threat, this did not stop the police from shooting another last bullet that killed him. The permission to kill may in fact derive from “repeated verbal encouragement by highest-level State officials to use lethal force” and from Duterte’s pledge to kill criminals. Consequently, the operation was neither planned nor assessed with a view to regarding the use of force as the last result; and no precautionary measures have been taken to minimize the use of force and therefore to safeguard his right to life.  Enforcement officials do have to act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved. In the case at hand, the use of lethal force was not proportionate to Mr Ruivivar’s “threat”, as not meant to achieve a legitimate aim. Firstly, according to UN Basic Principles, potential lethal force may be justified only on the grounds specified under Principle 9. On the basis of witness’ information, such legitimate conditions, that could have justified police’s action to shoot to injure him, did not classify the situation. For the Human Rights Committee the application of potential lethal force must be “strictly necessary”; and it “[…] cannot exceed the amount strictly needed for responding to the threat”, and the threat responded to by the police officers did not involve “imminent death or serious injury” as required by the Committee. In a second moment, he raised the arms and got killed, and on the basis of Principle 9, the “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life”, thus limiting it to an imminent threat to life, which does not justify police’s shoot to kill as Mr Ruivivar did not pose such a threat by raising his hands. The employ of a firearm is an extreme measure, as illustrated by the rules to be adhered to prior to its use. Not in compliance with those, the police failed to give a warning of their intent to shoot to stop him and to kill him, and most probably the officers did not identify themselves as such, as the witnesses argued that recognized the police from the Criminal Investigation and Detection Unit’s t-shirts they were wearing. 

Conforming to the Police instead, while approaching the suspect he immediately pulled out a gun and fired at the policemen. Under this premise, the potential lethal force could have been employed as self-defence from a serious injury to stop him, but from the police’s version there is no proof that they complied with the precautionary rules of Principle 10; and eventually, they shot to kill him which would have been unnecessary and unproportionate in this hypothesis as well, as the situation would not make it strictly unavoidable. 

It seems unclear whether the basis for such violent enforcement measures could be the “drug watch lists” or the alleged criminal charges. Even though the declared criminal charges are well included in the Philippines’ penal code; any basis was exercised outside a judicial process, therefore, violating the right to a fair trial, which is not listed as a non-derogable right under the ICCPR. In 2016 President Duterte declared a state of emergency. Nevertheless, the Human Rights Committee regards that right as one which may not be subject to derogation if this would circumvent non-derogable rights’ protection, such as the right to life Mr Ruivivar has been ultimately deprived of due to the use of lethal force by police officers. 

Wherefore, the police did not abide by the key-principles and related-law of law enforcement resulting in the extrajudicial killing, namely arbitrary deprivation of life, of Mr Ruivivar. 


Larger context

The Philippines provides a clear example of a situation where the Government acts in the name of a beneficial fight but with the underlying intention to deprive people of their human rights. It emerged that during the COVID-19 lockdown “war drug” deaths increased by 50%; consistent with the global rise in human rights breaches in the enforcement of Coronavirus security measures

Philippines’ reality also proves how far is the universal compliance with States’ duty to protect people within their jurisdiction, and the consequent need for an independent investigative system, mandated for instance by the Human Rights Council, with the goal to contribute to accountability and justice. 

It is noticeable that time and perseverance are necessary to bring a change, and something is moving towards this direction from the moment that the ICC, despite Philippines’ withdrawal from the Statute, aspires to finalize preliminary examination of “war drug” killings as possible crimes against humanity. 


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