Rights advocates slammed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday over remarks he made a day earlier about forming a police squad to assassinate communist insurgents.
In a speech before military personnel on central Bohol island, Duterte said he would form a death squad to counter the “sparrow unit” once deployed by the communist New People’s Army (NPA) to target members of the police and military force. The communist sparrows carried out assassinations in urban centers in the 1980s, when dictator Ferdinand Marcos was in power.
“One of these days, I will be forced to create my own sparrow,” Duterte said in Tuesday’s speech. “They would be tasked to only go after loiterers or those suspected to be NPAs, and kill them.”
Duterte’s comments surprised many people because no killings had been attributed to the “sparrow unit” in years.
“I will match their talent also for assassinating people. They will be armed and that is what I intend to do,” he said.
Duterte suggested that government forces were vulnerable to attacks from sparrow units, especially after peace talks between his administration and the rebels’ political wing collapsed.
“What I lack is a sparrow unit. That’s their advantage. ... So I will create a sparrow. Duterte Death Squad against the sparrow,” the president said.
While it was not clear whether Duterte was serious, his statement troubled human rights groups which said it could increase impunity in a country where thousands of suspected drug dealers and addicts have been gunned down since he became president two years ago.
Jose Luis Gascon, chairman of the independent Committee on Human Rights, said Duterte’s statement was worrisome because the state had “a duty to protect its citizens from all forms of harm including lawless violence and terrorist acts.”
“This duty must at all times be undertaken in accordance with established rules of engagement,” Gascon said, adding that the principles of International Humanitarian Law prohibits state forces from using death squads.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also weighed in criticizing Duterte’s comments.
“If there was a death squad Olympics, Duterte would be on the victory stand. Yet his murderous policies continue to make the people of the Philippines the losers. His statement is a declaration of open season against rebels, leftists, civilians and critics of the government,” said Carlos Conde, HRW’s Philippine researcher.
The police, Conde warned, would only worsen what HRW had branded as a “human rights calamity” in the country tied to Duterte’s war on drugs.
“Duterte once again affirmed extrajudicial killing as his administration’s official policy against government critics,” Conde said.
Asked to comment on the president’s statement, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana appeared to be at a loss for an answer, saying the government would “study it very closely.”
But he conceded that forming a death squad could lead to potential abuses and problems with accountability.
“Because there is great danger of abuse or mistakes in these undercover operations. One way to prevent this is for someone higher up to give the go-signal after careful and thorough vetting. The operatives should not be granted blanket authority,” the defense secretary said.
Duterte faces two mass murder cases before the International Criminal Court (ICC), which were filed by victims of his drug war and two self-confessed former members of a suspected death squad that operated in Davao city when Duterte served as mayor.
Manila’s justice secretary, Menardo Guevarra, on Wednesday sought to play down the president’s comments.
“We should always understand that kind of statement to mean – use reasonable force to apprehend suspected assassins,” Guevarra told the Philippine Star.
“But if there is armed resistance and your life is seriously endangered in the process, shoot back,” he said.
Duterte’s comments came hours before a member of a left-leaning labor group was gunned down Wednesday morning.
Linus Cubol, a leader of the Kilusang Mayo Uno labor group, was shot five times and died at a furniture shop he owned in southern Agusa del Norte province.
A week earlier, Cubol had been taken in for questioning by members of the army’s intelligence unit about his recent participation in anti-government rallies, his colleagues said.
Mark Navales in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.