At the end of January 2021 twelve suspects and a police officer were killed in a drug raid in the Philippines, adding to the nationwide death toll of the anti-drug campaign. This “war on drugs” in the Philippines initiated by President Duterte in 2016 is prolonged until at least 2022, although the campaign has received sharp criticism from the international community for disregarding human rights.
Thousands of people killed
After President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June 2016, he quickly announced his “war on drugs” in the Philippines with the aim to rid the country of corruption, drugs and criminality within a few months. He encouraged the population to murder drug dealers and drug users, published “kill lists” and authorized police forces to “shoot to kill”. In the first half year of the presidency 34 people died on average every day.
Duterte has never made a secret out his beliefs that killing people is the solution to crime. In 2009, when he was still a mayor, he manifested: “If you are doing an illegal activity in my city (…), you are a legitimate target of assassination.” This continued during his presidential campaign, where he directly warned “drug pushers, holdup men, and do-nothings” to “better get out because I’ll kill you”. The President regularly voices his plan to kill drug dealers and users.
So far, this anti-drug policy has led to the killing of more than 8,600 people according to official governmental figures, while other sources cite numbers up to 27,000. Over 234,000 operations led to the arrest of 357,000 suspects since 2016. However, Duterte seems far from being finished. He extended his orders to kill until 2022, convinced that this crackdown is necessary for security. During the pandemic, “drug war killings” as well as attacks on activists, community and indigenous leaders, human rights defenders and journalists increased extremely, exploiting the Covid-19 curfews.
Even though the campaign is directed against drugs, claims were made that it was also used to conceal the assassination political opponents. Moreover, the killing of over a hundred children has been uncovered by the World Organisation Against Torture. These child victims were either directly targeted (for example to eliminate the witness of another killing), killed as proxies when the real targets could not be found, killed as a result of mistaken identities, or labelled as “collateral damage” due to stray police bullets.
Apart from that, Amnesty International substantiated that the majority of victims comes from impoverished backgrounds, for example unemployed and people living in informal settlements. They are being killed because they are put on watch lists based on hearsay, community rumour or rivalry. Past drug use, regardless of how long ago it was, is sufficient to be put on the list and there is no legal recourse to challenge the inclusion. Statistics demonstrate that 40% of the killings between May 2016 and September 2017 had happened in the slums of Metro Manila. This shows that not drug lords and dealers are the targets, but mainly poor drug users.
Severe violations of Human Rights without consequences
The wording (“war” on drugs) is specifically used to convince others of the importance and necessity of this policy, but also to justify the brutal means deployed: A war is generally the last resort and allows the lawful killing of opponents. However, it should be noted that the drug campaign does not satisfy the requirements for a war in the legal sense, and the killings of a country’s own citizens cannot be justified. The international human rights framework as well as the domestic law continues to apply and regulate the authorities’ actions.
Nonetheless, extrajudicial executions are carried out by the police as well as unknown killers linked to authorities, as evidenced by reports from Amnesty international, Human Rights Watch and OHCHR. Suspected drug users and dealers are deliberately targeted without proper investigations or proceedings. Additionally, house visits can be solely based on the watch lists and do not require a warrant, leaving individuals vulnerable to pressure and intimidation. According to OHCHR only 1.2% of anti-drug police operations were based on arrest warrants. Furthermore, the police routinely plants evidence and falsifies incident reports claiming the victim was armed, shot first or would not surrender to obfuscate the facts. Amnesty International even confirms that police offers are being financially incentivized to kill people in encounters, and contracted killers are used for murdering drug users.
Most importantly, these arbitrary deprivations of life are not being investigated by the authorities. Police officers and others responsible are not being prosecuted or face any adverse consequences. According to the OHCHR report, there has only been one conviction in a police operation since the start of the campaign, namely for the killing of a 17-year-old drug suspect. Hence, Duterte established a culture of impunity for drug-related killings in the Philippines.
This ruthless approach has resulted in unarmed people and innocent people being shot, and thereby violating the right of life and the right to equality before the law. Furthermore, the ongoing impunity and the house raids violate the right to a fair trial.
Although the Philippines have withdrawn from the Rome Statue effectively since March 2019, the International Criminal Court (ICC) retains its jurisdiction over all crimes committed before then, i.e. when the Philippines were still party to the Statute. To this effect, the preliminary examination of crimes committed under the “war on drugs” campaign since July 2016 has been ongoing since February 2018. In a report published in December 2020, the ICC said that the information available “provides a reasonable basis to believe that the crimes against humanity of murder, torture and the infliction of serious physical injury and mental harm were committed on the territory of the Philippines”. This is an important announcement, as there are not many other international mechanisms of accountability applicable to the Philippines.
Despite the ratification of the most important UN human rights treaties (with the exception of the UN Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance), the Philippines have for the majority not agreed to the individual complaints procedures contained therein. Therefore, people in the Philippines can only file complaints against violations of the rights secured in the ICCCPR and CEDAW after they have exhausted all domestic remedies. This route has been scarcely used so far.
It is not a surprise, that the Philippine’s statement of withdrawal from the Rome Statue on 17 March 2018 came less than six weeks after the ICC announced its preliminary examination. President Duterte is executing his agenda of terrorizing his population in the name of a “war on drugs” and does not want any international interference. On the contrary, the government denies all allegations and insists that all deaths occur during legitimate police operations.
Solution must be based on human rights
The rules of wars have been established to protect the civilian population and limit the suffering of combatants; they have not been set up to circumvent human rights law. The conduct of the Philippine executive authorities needs to be based on the rule of law, meaning that force is used proportionately and only when necessary, and that lethal force is only used as a last resort in self-defence. An anti-drug “war” campaign is not an excuse for violating basic human rights.
The Philippines used to be a forerunner for human rights when it was the first Asian country to abolish death penalty in 1987, but the current human rights situation in the country is shocking. There is no justification for depriving people of rights that are inherent to them as humans based on their involvement or alleged involvement in drug crimes.
After more than four years of Duterte’s “war on drugs“, it is clear that his approach has failed and is not able to neutralize the illegal drug figures. Despite the majority of the public being satisfied with his anti-drug campaign, it is not suited to actually address the underlying problem. Rather than focusing on individual users, the campaign needs to efficiently target high-level drug dealers and traffickers to cut the supply of drugs. Moreover, public health has to be the foundation of the efforts, by encouraging people to seek help rather than scaring them off with strict law enforcement and murder. The country has to invest in rehabilitation programs, providing treatment and counselling for addicts.
The current anti-drug campaign has to be stopped immediately to prevent further killings. Law enforcement authorities need to be stopped from acting like they have a licence to kill. Finally, independent and impartial investigations of all deaths occurring during police operations have to be carried out. If necessary, an international investigation to address the widespread and systematic killings has to established.