On June 4, the Geneva-based United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released its report on the human rights situation in the Philippines, notably in relation to the Duterte administration’s brutal “war on drugs.”
Its verdict: The administration’s “heavy-handed focus’’ on countering national security threats and illegal drugs has “resulted in serious human rights violations in the Philippines, including killings and arbitrary detentions, as well as the vilification of dissent.”
That environment of “persistent impunity” has come “often at the expense of human rights, due process rights, the rule of law, and accountability,” it declared — made worse by “harmful rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of the Government.”
The OHCHR said its report was based on 893 written submissions, including substantial input from the Philippine government as well as analysis of legislation, police reports, documents, videos, photos and other open-source material, and interviews with victims and witnesses. The report will be presented at the next UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva later this month.
While the official tally for drug suspects killed since 2016 is 8,663, the UN office noted that some estimates put the real death toll at more than thrice that number. It said it has likewise documented 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists, and trade unionists killed in relation to their work between 2015 and 2019.
Surely there have been convictions for such killings? Only one, astoundingly, since mid-2016, indicating the “near impunity for these killings.’’
Government policies informing police conduct came in for a strong rebuke. The use of such terms as the “negation’’ and “neutralization’’ of suspects, for instance: “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,” said the OHCHR, referring to government directives on the drug war.
The UN office also found the same damning pattern in police records other observers had seen: Of 25 operations where 45 people were killed in Metro Manila between August 2016 and June 2017, the police claimed to have recovered satchels of methamphetamine and guns allegedly used by the victims to resist capture in all crime scenes. And they repeatedly recovered guns bearing the same serial numbers from different victims in different locations: seven handguns with unique serial numbers appearing in at least two separate crime scenes, and two others reappearing in five different crime scenes. “The pattern suggests planting of evidence by police officers and casts doubt on the self-defense narrative, implying that the victims were likely unarmed at the time of killing.”
“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,’’ concluded the OHCHR.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque has rejected the UN report as “unfounded,” with “rehashed claims of impunity” and “faulty conclusions.” “We maintain that the rule of law is upheld in the Philippines,” he said.
Notwithstanding such protestations, the killings have continued even under the COVID-19 lockdown. A monitoring report by media outfit Vera Files found 53 drug-related killings from March 15 to May 5, when Metro Manila was under the enhanced community quarantine. Another report said 783 murders were recorded from March 17 to May 30, or 10 killings a day.
In less than two weeks in May, seven people were shot dead in Negros Oriental, including radio reporter Cornelio Pepino on May 5. On June 3, fish vendor Edgar Daño Espinosa was riding his bike when he was shot and killed by two men onboard a motorcycle in Lapu-Lapu City. Two others — a city employee and an 18-year-old — were killed in separate incidents in Barangay Bankal in Lapu-Lapu City, again involving gunmen on motorcycles. In Cotabato City, Aniceto “Boy” Rasalan, executive secretary and spokesperson of Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, was assassinated the same way.
In Metro Manila, where until recently streets bristled with checkpoints and curfews were imposed, and where motorcycle back-riders are still forbidden, guess what: A woman was shot dead inside her apartment by two men who came on a motorcycle on May 17. Before her, a man in Caloocan was killed by bonnet-wearing vigilantes riding tandem on a motorcycle at 4 a.m. on May 9.
Intriguing thought: How were these back-riding assassins able to elude the curfews and pass through the police/military checkpoints?
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