(New York) – The Aquino administration should act on the Philippine Commission on Human Rights’ recommendations to investigate and hold accountable officials responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial killings in Davao City.
In a long awaited statement, the commission on August 15, 2012, released a “resolution” on its investigation of the so-called Davao Death Squad. It affirmed reports of the targeted and systematic killings in Davao City, on the southern island of Mindanao, mostly of suspected criminals, many of them young men and teenagers. The commission said it verified 206 out of an alleged 375 killings between 2005 and 2009 that it had previously listed.
“The Commission on Human Rights’ Davao Death Squad statement is an important opportunity for the Aquino administration to show that it is serious about holding officials accountable for the worst abuses,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government should promptly implement these recommendations.”
The resolution denounced the failure by local authorities to stop the killings and to investigate and bring those responsible to justice. Among the commission’s recommendations is for the Office of the Ombudsman to investigate possible criminal or administrative culpability of Rodrigo Duterte, then the mayor of Davao City, for the killings. Duterte, now vice mayor, had publicly issued warnings that criminals were a “legitimate target of assassination” in Davao City.
The commission also recommended a “serious, impartial and effective investigation” of these killings by the National Bureau of Investigation. It also called for the investigation of possible obstruction of justice by other local civilian and police officials and a congressional review of the control by city mayors of police forces.
President Benigno Aquino III should instruct the National Bureau of Investigation to open an investigation into the death squad killings in Davao City, and the ombudsman should open a long overdue investigation into Duterte.
In March, the Office of the Ombudsman found 21 Davao City police officials and officers guilty of “simple neglect of duty” for failing to stop or solve the killings. Each was punished with a fine of one month’s salary. The ombudsman said its investigation established that 720 people were summarily executed in Davao City from 2005 through 2008.
In its resolution, dated June 28, the Commission on Human Rights stated that, “The continuing pattern of killings and the failure to conduct a meaningful investigation of such incidents can be construed as tolerance on the part of the authorities of the crimes heretofore described, thereby contributing to the climate of impunity.” It accused the government of failing in its “responsibility to protect,” citing international human rights agreements that the Philippines has ratified.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the Philippines ratified in 1986, obligates governments to ensure respect for fundamental human rights. The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors compliance with the ICCPR, has stated that governments that permit or fail to take appropriate measures “to prevent, punish, or investigate or redress the harm” caused by criminal acts may be violating basic rights.
The Commission on Human Rights criticized the “consistent failure” of the police to investigate the killings. Witnesses have told Human Rights Watch that police routinely arrived at the scene of a shooting long after the assailants left, even if the nearest police station was just minutes away. Instead of using forensic investigation techniques, police often pressured families of victims to identify killers, putting them at grave risk.
Human Rights Watch in its April 2009 report, “You Can Die Anytime,” documented killings by the Davao Death Squad and similar armed groups in other Philippine cities. The report exposed the workings of the death squad, which was controlled largely by police officers or former police officers with the complicity of local government officials, who would provide lists of targets. The killers, who were often paid for each successful execution, were usually former communist guerrillas who had surrendered to the government or criminals who joined the death squad to avoid being targeted themselves.
Recent research by Human Rights Watch indicates that death squad killings continue to occur in Davao City, although on a much smaller scale. The local media have stopped referring to the Davao Death Squad in reporting, but the nature of these killings suggests that death squad activities continue. The local government, meanwhile, takes pride in the supposed relative peace in Davao City, often citing the purported low crime rate as a factor for its progress. Similar death-squad style killings have been reported in the cities of Zamboanga, Tagum, General Santos, Cebu, and Cagayan de Oro.
“By holding Davao City officials accountable for their failure to prevent and investigate the killings, the Aquino administration can stop the spread of these atrocities to other parts of the country,” Adams said. “This would be a concrete way to help families of victims obtain justice and show that its rhetoric on ending impunity is meaningful to ordinary Filipinos.”