Updated at 5:13 p.m. ET on 2020-06-04
The United Nations, in a report released Thursday, criticized the Philippines for doing little to punish police linked to anti-narcotics killings, saying a heavy-handed focus on countering national security threats and illegal drugs had resulted in serious human rights violations.
The U.N. Human Rights Office (OHCHR) in Geneva issued the 26-page report on the day that hundreds of people marched in Manila to protest against the nation’s newly adopted anti-terror bill, which is awaiting President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature to become law. Philippine human rights activists and critics have warned that the government could use the legislation to curtail basic freedoms and stifle criticism of it, particularly Duterte’s controversial drug war.
“There has been near impunity” for killings committed as part of the administration’s four-year-old crackdown on narcotics, in which more than 8,600 people have been slain, “with only one conviction for the killing of a drug suspect in a police operation since mid-2016,” according to OHCHR.
Investigators from the office examined policy documents by the government relating to the Duterte administration’s anti-drug campaign, and discovered a “troubling lack of due process protections,” U.N. officials said in a news release that accompanied the report. It noted the use of dehumanizing terminology such as the “negation” or “neutralization” of drug suspects.
“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 said.
Mandated by a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution, the report cited witnesses, family members, journalists and lawyers who expressed fears over their safety and a sense of powerlessness in their quest for justice. This resulted in a situation where “the practical obstacles to accessing justice within the country are almost insurmountable.”
“While there have been important human rights gains in recent years, particularly in economic and social rights, the underpinning focus on national security threats – real and inflated – has led to serious human rights violations, reinforced by harmful rhetoric from high-level officials,” the report said.
The council is expected to receive the report at its next session opening on June 22.
“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,” Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement released with the report.
“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. Their testimonies are heartbreaking,” she added.
A day earlier, Bachelet named the Philippines as part of a list of Asian countries that had tightened censorship as well as conducted arbitrary arrests and detentions of people for criticizing their governments’ response to the coronavirus pandemic, or for sharing information or views about it. Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam were the other countries on that list.
“While Governments may have a legitimate interest in controlling the spread of misinformation in a volatile and sensitive context, this must be proportionate and protect freedom of expression,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement issued on Wednesday.
“This crisis should not be used to restrict dissent or the free flow of information and debate. A diversity of viewpoints will foster greater understanding of the challenges we face and help us better overcome them,” Bachelet added.
In the Philippines, presidential spokesman Harry Roque challenged the report by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
“We remain a nation that takes pride in protecting our people’s rights and freedoms, among which is the freedom of expression,” he said in a statement posted by the state-run Philippine News Agency.
He also took issue with the report’s claim that police acted with impunity.
“Law enforcers operate on strict protocols and transgressors of the law are made accountable,” he said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch said the U.N. report offered convincing proof of the catastrophic situation in the country.
“It affirms what many rights defenders inside and outside of the Philippines have publicly said over the past three years about the anti-drug campaign’s wholesale violations of due process and rule of law, and police actions to routinely manufacture evidence and rig reports,” said Phil Robertson, the watchdog’s deputy Asia director.
“With President Duterte continuing to urge the killing drug users, so-called leftists and even violators of COVID-19 quarantine or curfew orders, there is little likelihood that national mechanisms will hold anyone responsible for the carnage of the ‘drug war’ that has killed thousands of Filipinos,” he said.
Meanwhile Duterte, who was visiting his hometown of Davao City on Thursday, was expected to sign the anti-terror bill into law soon, his aides said.
The Philippine House of Representatives passed the bill on Wednesday after the Senate passed its own version in February.
The legislation amends the country’s Human Security Act to give it “more teeth” against fighting terrorism, officials said. It authorizes officers to carry out warrantless arrests and hold suspects for up to two weeks, as well as impose life imprisonment for any involvement in terroristic activities.
Rights groups and opposition leaders have expressed fears that Duterte could use the law to crack down on legitimate dissent in the guise of going after terrorists.
“It is no longer surprising that Duterte certified as urgent the anti-terror bill instead of tackling hunger and public fears caused by the pandemic first,” opposition leader Sen. Leila de Lima said.
The Duterte critic has been imprisoned since 2017 on what rights groups said were trumped up charges that she was involved in the drug trade.
“The fight against terrorism should not lead us to grant the government the power to abuse our human rights and civil liberties,” she said in a statement from detention.
Cristina Palabay, head of the rights group Karapatan, branded the bill’s passage as a “blatant travesty.”
“Duterte’s lapdogs in congress have basically rejected and blocked individual amendments during the hearings and they are hell bent in making sure that this monstrous and repressive piece of legislation is passed and served to Duterte on a silver platter,” Palabay said.
Aie Balagtas See in Manila contributed to this report.