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President Rodrigo Duterte
Malacañan Palace Compound
J. P. Laurel St., San Miguel, Manila
The Philippines

Re: Human Rights Concerns in the Philippines

Dear President Duterte,

Congratulations on your recent election to the presidency of the Philippines. In particular, we encourage you to bring energy to protecting and promoting the human rights of everyone in the country.

Human Rights Watch is a nongovernmental organization that monitors human rights in more than 90 countries around the globe. We hold governments and non-state actors to international human rights and international humanitarian law. Since the late 1980s, Human Rights Watch has worked on human rights issues in the Philippines and provided input to the national government. With your election victory, you and your new government have an opportunity—and the responsibility—to address continuing human rights concerns in the Philippines. As the Philippines is a party to the core human rights treaties, we urge you to ensure that the Philippines lives up to its international legal obligations.

We write to you with specific recommendations that have important implications for the human rights of the Philippine people, namely extrajudicial and summary killings, the lack of accountability for abuses by the security forces, the rights of indigenous peoples and ethnic and religious minorities, internal displacement, reproductive health, children’s rights and the health rights implications of the worsening HIV epidemic.

As president, it is your responsibility to protect the universal rights and freedoms of all Filipinos. You wield great influence in ensuring that security forces respect and enforce the rights and freedoms embodied in both the Philippine constitution as well as international human rights instruments. What you say in support of rights and freedoms can have significant influence around the country. That is why we are encouraged by your June 30 inauguration address pledge that your “adherence to due process and the rule of law is uncompromising” and that you will ensure that “the Republic of the Philippines will honor treaties and international obligations.” We also note that in your July 25 State of the Nation Address you stated that “rule of law must at all times prevail” and that government is obliged to “fulfill the human rights of our citizens.”

We urge you and your government to make these issues a priority. We divided our recommendations on each subject into those that can have near-immediate impact on the human rights situation of large numbers of people, and those that will require longer-term commitment of political will and resources.


Extrajudicial Killings

In your inauguration speech, you reiterated your administration’s “uncompromising stand” on due process of law. However, we are gravely concerned that your campaign rhetoric often advocated the killings of “criminals” and drug dealers. We note that your inauguration speech included a promise of an official anti-drug battle that “will be relentless and it will be sustained.” We are concerned that your public exhortation later that day – “If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful” – may motivate police to engage in unlawful killings of criminal suspects.

In cities across the Philippines, there are near-daily media reports of summary killings by unidentified attackers, often involving gunmen on motorcycles. Many of these killings are linked to local politicians, members of local police forces, and guns for hire contracted by local politicians or criminal syndicates. Police rarely make any arrests related to these attacks.

Journalists have been a frequent victim of summary killing. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has documented a total of 39 journalists murdered during the Aquino administration. The majority of those journalists killed have been radio broadcasters; many are linked to politics since many radio stations in the Philippines are owned by local politicians or interest groups who hire broadcasters to produce content sympathetic to their employers. Over the past six years, there has only been three successful prosecutions of individuals – all gunmen, not the masterminds -- implicated in killings of journalists. Most disturbingly, there has yet to be any successful prosecutions of those responsible for the Ampatuan massacre in 2009, in which 32 media workers were murdered along with 26 other people by members of a private militia controlled by the Ampatuans, then the most powerful political family in Maguindanao province. Task Force Usig, a unit created by the Philippine National Police in 2007 to investigate extrajudicial killings, has not been able to fully investigate most of these cases, mainly due to the lack of witnesses willing to publicly identify themselves and share information with police.


  1. Make clear public statements disavowing extrajudicial killings and asserting the primacy of rule of law and due legal process;
  2. Appropriately discipline any public officials who publicly endorse extrajudicial killings as a form of “crime control”;
  3. Instruct the Philippine National Police to take appropriate disciplinary action against officers who failure to arrest suspects implicated in summary killings;
  4. Direct the Philippine National Police to audit the performance of Task Force Usig and ensure that it has the capacity and leadership to adequately investigate and pursue prosecutions for extrajudicial killings;
  5. Direct Task Force Usig to submit a regular – preferably monthly – public progress report on the status of the cases it is investigating;
  6. Ensure that investigations into the masterminds of killings where the assailants have been convicted continue; and
  7. Ensure that the prosecution has sufficient resources to pursue cases against those most responsible for the Maguindanao massacre.

There are measures that your government can and should do in the longer term to address the problem of extrajudicial killings. We urge you to:

  1. Ensure adequate support and funding for programs designed to improve the country’s judicial and criminal justice system, such as training police officers to conduct better forensic investigations and better case management; and
  2. Rescind Executive Order 546 (2006) that allows local politicians like the Ampatuans of Maguindanao province to effectively form their own militias or private armies.


Lack of Accountability for Security Forces

Human Rights Watch has long documented abuses by Philippines police, military, and military-affiliated paramilitary groups including the Citizen Armed Force Geographic Unit (Cafgu) and the Special Civilian Armed Auxiliary (SCAA). There is still widespread impunity for members of the security forces responsible for serious human rights violations in the Philippines. According to the Department of National Defense, only one soldier has been convicted of a human rights abuse case since 2001, out of the hundreds of cases documented by domestic human rights groups. The Philippine police continue to be routinely implicated in human rights abuses including extrajudicial killings and torture.

Philippine authorities reported the deaths of at least 45 criminal suspects in encounters with police between June 30 and July 4. These included 29 “drug and robbery suspects” in the province of Bulacan, seven suspected drug traffickers in Manila, and six alleged drug dealers in six other unspecified provinces. Police have attributed the killings to suspects who “resisted arrest and shot at police officers.” That four-day death toll compares with police statistics that indicate a total of 68 police killings of alleged illegal drug suspects from January 1 to June 15, 2016, and suggests that police may be ignoring the rights of suspects and committing unlawful killings.

Human Rights Watch has also documented the existence of police-linked death squads in several cities. This includes Davao City, where you were mayor for 22 years, where we documented the existence of a death squad linked to the deaths of hundreds of people between 1998 and 2009. Domestic human rights groups report that those killings continue. We note that you spoke in support of extrajudicial killings in Davao City on numerous occasions while you were mayor and that there has not been a single successful prosecution of the perpetrators of any of those hundreds of killings. We have also documented the existence of a death squad organized by the then-mayor of Tagum City and staffed by gunmen employed in the city’s Civilian Security Unit. That death squad operation morphed into a guns-for-hire racket that killed at least 300 people from 2007 to 2013. The Department of Justice initiated an investigation into the death squad in Tagum City in 2014 and announced in March 2015 that they would file charges against the former mayor and several other suspects. However, at time of writing, the Department of Justice has not done so and there have been no prosecutions of any suspects linked to the Tagum Death Squad.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines also continue to be implicated in serious human rights abuses. Domestic human rights organizations have documented the killings of more than 300 leftist activists, human rights defenders, and alleged supporters of the communist New People’s Army (NPA) since 2010. Those organizations link the majority of those killings, which rarely result in prosecutions, to military and paramilitary groups.

It’s encouraging that the military finally arrested the fugitive and retired major general Jovito Palparan in 2014 for his alleged role in the 2006 kidnapping and torture of two activists. However, despite that symbolic case, abuses by the military continue to be routinely uninvestigated and allowed to occur with impunity. A bellwether test of military impunity from the past decade is the case of Jonas Burgos, a peasant leader who was allegedly abducted by military personnel from inside a mall in Quezon City in April 2007 and has not been seen since. The Supreme Court upheld a Court of Appeals ruling that found the military responsible for Burgos’s abduction. An army major identified by witnesses as one of Burgos’s abductors has been released on bail and the military has failed to provide its full cooperation in efforts to locate the missing activist.



  1. Publicly disavow “death squads” as a legitimate crime-control strategy and investigate and appropriately prosecute any government official involved in extrajudicial killings;
  2. Ensure that police operations against those in violation of the drug laws are carried out in full accordance with international human rights standards, including the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials;
  3. Launch an immediate and impartial investigation into the circumstances behind the escalation in police killings of suspected drug traffickers and drug users since June 30;
  4. Direct the Department of Justice to fully prosecute the Tagum Death Squad suspects;
  5. Direct the Department of Justice to continue its investigations into the death squad killings in Davao City, Tagum City and other cities where dead squad killings have been reported;
  6. Direct the military to stop targeting activists and indigenous peoples; and
  7. Direct the military to cooperate fully in locating Jonas Burgos.

There are measures that your government can and should do in the longer term to address the problem of impunity for abuses by security forces. We urge you to:

  1. Ensure that the military has full operational control of and accountability for paramilitary groups operating under military auspices;
  2. Instruct the Department of Justice to undertake an investigation into the human rights impact of the government’s counter-insurgency program, Oplan Bayanihan, which the military is allegedly using to target peaceful activists for attack;
  3. Direct the military to cooperate fully with civilian authorities in the investigation of cases of human rights violations; and
  4. Direct the Department of Justice, the lead agency that implements Administrative Order 35 that seeks to account for extrajudicial killings, to make public an accounting of the cases it has handled and to develop means to expedite investigations into its huge backlog of summary killing cases.


Attacks on Indigenous Peoples

You pledged in your July 25 State of the Nation Address to ensure the protection of the Lumad indigenous peoples through implementation of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, and the activities of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples. That protection is greatly needed. Data compiled by indigenous peoples’ advocacy groups indicate that assailants often linked to the military or paramilitary groups were responsible for the killing of at least 80 indigenous leaders and members out of the more than 300 reported extrajudicial killings in the Philippines since 2010. Military operations against suspected NPA guerrillas has displaced hundreds of students in several tribal schools in four provinces in Mindanao since then. In 2015, domestic human rights groups alleged that the military conducted a series of attacks against indigenous peoples in Mindanao.

Beginning in late March, some 6,000 protesters, primarily indigenous peoples, farmers and supporters from drought-stricken areas in North Cotabato and Bukidnon provinces gathered in Kidapawan City calling for government food aid and other assistance. The police responded by shooting into the crowd, killing two people. The authorities have to date failed to investigate those killings.

The military has sought to justify other attacks and displacement of indigenous peoples in tribal domains in other provinces in the southern Philippines as part of counter-insurgency operations. Some military units that hire themselves out as security forces for mining and plantation operations have also been implicated in abuses of indigenous people’s rights. Paramilitary groups, some of them funded and supplied by the military, are frequently deployed as “force multipliers” against insurgents in these areas, committing abuses against the local population.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in September 2015 that “paramilitary groups known to be supported by the military are the main cause of the human rights violations against these IP [indigenous peoples] communities and the cause of their displacement.” The UN special experts on the rights of indigenous peoples and on human rights defenders, in a statement on September 22, 2015, said the “military occupation of civilian institutions and killing of civilians, particularly in places such as schools, which should remain safe havens for children from this type of violence, are unacceptable, deplorable, and contrary to international human rights and international humanitarian standards.”


  1. Instruct the Department of Justice to launch a thorough and impartial investigation into possible complicity of the military, paramilitary groups, and mining companies in attacks against indigenous peoples, leaders, and activists;
  2. Direct the police to enforce the arrest warrant issued against the suspects in the attacks against indigenous leaders in Surigao del Sur in September 2015; and
  3. Direct the National Police Commission to investigate the culpability of police officers in the Kidapawan shooting in April 2016.

There are measures that your government can and should do in the longer term to address the problem of attacks on indigenous peoples. We urge you to:

  1. Direct the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Department of National Defense to ensure effective command and control of paramilitary groups;
  2. Uphold international humanitarian law in conflict areas and ensure accountability of security forces implicated in abuses; and
  3. Instruct the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, which has been accused by some tribal groups of approving resource extraction projects that favor mining interests and the military despite indigenous peoples’ objections, to be neutral and impartial in settling disputes involving indigenous peoples, given the role mining companies have in areas where conflict occurs.


Reproductive Health Rights

In your July 25 State of the Nation Address you pledged to “put into full force and effect” the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law (the RH Law). That support is greatly needed because on January 8, 2016, the Philippine Congress eliminated funding in the 2016 national budget for contraception guaranteed under the RH Law. That decision cut vital support for lower-income Filipinos who rely on state-provided contraceptive services and supplies for protection from sexually transmitted infections, and for safe birth-spacing and family planning. The United Nations Population Fund has criticized the congressional action as a threat to “the basic human right to health as well as the right to reproductive choices.”

We have also documented in some parts of the Philippines the passage by local government units (LGU) of ordinances or policies aimed to derail the full enforcement of the RH Law. One such LGU is Sorsogon City in the Bicol region. Sorsogon Mayor Sally Lee issued Executive Order No. 3 in February 2015, declaring Sorsogon City as a “pro-life city.” Although the order does not explicitly prohibit family planning services and contraceptive supplies, health workers and reproductive health advocates said the city government issued oral guidelines to the city’s public clinics, which normally provide contraceptive supplies free of charge, to cease that distribution and instead to promote only “natural” family planning methods such as the Catholic Church-approved “rhythm method.”

City government officials subsequently removed all contraceptive supplies from all the city’s government-operated clinics and health centers. The Sorsogon City Health Office also declined Department of Health deliveries of these products on the basis that they violated the mayor’s declaration of the city as “pro-life.” The Sorsogon City government ordered the staff of government health facilities – midwives, nurses, and barangay (village) health workers – to teach and promote only “natural” family planning methods to residents. Senior Sorsogon City government officials warned city employees that failure to comply with the “pro-life” directive could be grounds for dismissal. Some of those employees told Human Rights Watch in interviews in June that the municipal government subjected them to surveillance – by assigning other employees to watch them and report any violations to the office of the mayor -- to ensure compliance with the “pro-life” directive.

As a result, low-income women who previously relied on free-of-charge distribution of contraceptive supplies must now either buy them in commercial establishments or abandon their use altogether due to financial considerations. Reproductive health advocates and government health officials critical of the order told Human Rights Watch in June that the removal of family planning supplies from city public clinics has resulted in several unwanted pregnancies particularly in remote villages within the city’s jurisdiction.

In Balanga City, the municipal government has banned local public health officials and clinics from the procurement or distribution of family planning commodities since Mayor Joet Garcia took office in 2007. A local municipal health official told Human Rights Watch that at Garcia’s order the city stopped buying contraceptives and refused to distribute those being delivered by the national government through the Department of Health. That interruption in supply of government-provided contraception compelled low-income women to either buy them from pharmacies or clandestinely from local government-employed midwives at relatively high-cost. Joet stepped down as Balanga City mayor in May after being elected to Congress, but has been succeeded by his brother Francis Joet, who has yet to announce an end to the city’s ban on public provision of contraceptives to low-income Filipinos.


  1. Restore funding for family planning commodities in the 2016 budget;
  2. Direct the Department of the Interior and Local Government to review and repeal Sorsogon City’s Executive Order No. 3, which declared Sorsogon a “pro-life city”;
  3. Make clear that the government will overturn any “pro-life” ordinance passed by the Sorsogon City Council or any other municipality that would prohibit the sale and distribution of contraceptive supplies; and
  4. Protect from official harassment, intimidation, and possible suspension or dismissal of Sorsogon City employees who continue to provide family planning services and supplies in defiance of Executive Order No. 3.

There are measures that your government can and should do in the longer term to address the problem of lack of access to reproductive health services. We urge you to:

  1. Investigate and appropriately discipline officials who violate the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law and the Magna Carta of Women; and
  2. Ensure that local government units across the country have clear instructions to provide reproductive health services and contraceptive supplies, and devote adequate funding and resources.


HIV/AIDS Epidemic

The Philippines currently has the world’s fast growing epidemic of HIV/AIDS in the world. The Philippine government has had some past success in adopting measures to help prevent the spread of HIV. Unfortunately, policies persist at the local, provincial, and national level, compounded by resistance of the Catholic Church and other elements hostile to sexual health education and condom use, which are contributing to the country’s HIV epidemic. They include obstacles to condom access and HIV testing, inadequate HIV prevention educational efforts, and the criminalization of hypodermic needle possession without a prescription.

Although the national prevalence rate is still low, the country is experiencing a sharp rise in new infections. The Philippines recorded more than 22,000 new HIV infections between 2010 and 2015 — a more than quadrupling of the total number of infections recorded in the previous 26 years. The recorded number of new HIV transmissions recorded daily rose from 17 in 2014 to 25 as of May 2016.

The main driver of this increase is unprotected sex among men who have sex with men (MSM), a population in which prevalence has increased 10 times in the last five years. In 2015, the Department of Health reported that at least 11 cities registered HIV prevalence rates among MSM of more than 5 percent, with one – Cebu City, in the central Philippines – recording a 15 percent prevalence rate in 2015. 5 percent HIV prevalence rates are extremely dangerous because, as Dr. Genesis Samonte of the Department of Health recently emphasized, it is the “tipping point” at which the epidemic reaches a critical mass and becomes extremely difficult to control.

Transmission among people who inject drugs (PWIDs), while still low on a national level, is exploding in Cebu City, the second largest city, where PWIDs accounted for 77 percent of HIV cases since 2012. Public health experts believe that many of these new infections are the result of sharing of needles — one of the most efficient ways in which HIV is transmitted from one person to another — by people who use drugs. The law currently prohibits possession of hypodermic needles without a prescription. As a result, drug users often have no choice but to share needles and raise the risk of HIV transmission and severely complicates the provision of harm reduction interventions, a proven HIV prevention strategy.


  1. Instruct the Department of Health to launch a national condom-use promotion program that targets the particularly vulnerable MSM population segment;
  2. Reinstate the national harm reduction program supervised by the Department of Health, which empowered municipal governments to provide clean hypodermic syringes to intravenous drug users to discourage HIV transmission from needle-sharing;
  3. Direct the Ad Standards Council and the Movie Television Review and Classifications Board, the country’s censors, to allow condom manufacturers to advertise condoms targeting the high-risk young men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM) population segment;
  4. Seek to restore funding canceled by Congress for free condoms provided under the Reproductive Health Law; and
  5. Work with Congress to amend the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998 and revoke the provision that requires parental consent for minors who wish to undergo HIV testing.

There are measures that your government can and should do in the longer term to address the problem of lack of access to reproductive health services. We urge you to:

  1. Allocate funding and resources to ensure the viability of programs designed to raise public awareness of HIV/AIDS among young people and encourage early testing and treatment;
  2. Reorganize the Philippine National AIDS Council, the country’s highest policy making body on HIV/AIDS, to make it more responsive to the tasks of promoting condoms and safe sex, ensuring adequate supplies of antiretroviral drugs, and ensuring the presence of treatment facilities across the country; and
  3. Seek the revocation of the Dangerous Drugs Law provisions that criminalize possession of hypodermic needles.


Children’s Rights

We are encouraged by your statements of concern during your election campaign regarding the need to improve government services for the welfare of children and to eliminate poverty. We are also heartened by your pledge to work for the protection of children from crime and illegal drugs. There are numerous areas in which your administration can take action to protect the rights of children.

Human Rights Watch has documented how thousands of Filipino children – some as young as 9 years old – work in small-scale gold mines, mostly financed by local businessmen. Children work in unstable 25-meter-deep pits, underwater along the coastal shore, or in rivers. Those children also work with mercury, a readily available toxic metal that is commonly used to process gold. Children are particularly susceptible to mercury, which attacks the central nervous system and can cause brain damage and even death.

In November 2015, authorities rounded up hundreds of poor and homeless children, along with street vendors and homeless adults, and detained them in social welfare facilities in Manila in an attempt to “beautify” the capital for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. The government denied that the arrests were meant to clear the streets of Manila of vagrants. Many of these street dwellers were back on the streets a day after the summit.

Attacks on schools by the military and its paramilitary group continue to be a concern. On September 1, 2015, the Magahat paramilitary group allegedly attacked a tribal school in Surigao del Sur province, torturing and killing an educator and two tribal leaders. The attack caused an estimated 4,000 residents to flee their homes.

Save Our Schools Network, a Manila-based advocacy group, lists 52 attacks on schools in four Mindanao provinces from 2014 to mid-2015 by combined paramilitary and military forces. While paramilitaries have attacked public schools, most of their targets are tribal schools in far-flung villages where the New People’s Army is also present.

In 2015, the United Nations verified 10 incidents of military use of schools; 6 incidents were attributed to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, 3 incidents jointly to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and paramilitary groups, and 1 to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

We are also concerned that since your electoral victory on May 9, there have been reports of police and local governments detaining dozens of children as part of operations espousing to “rid the streets of drunkards and youths.” There are reports that some of these detentions have occurred even though the children were in the company of their parents or official guardians at the time of their arrest. Police and local officials have attributed these initiatives to your promise during the election about suppressing crime and eliminating illegal drugs. In several instances, police paraded those detained children before the media.


  1. Instruct the Department of Labor, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Department of Social Welfare and Services to investigate child labor in small-scale gold minds and ensure that children are protected from hazardous child labor and that government officials complicit in such abuses are appropriately punished;
  2. Enforce the March 2015 administrative order to ban mercury use and compressor mining;
  3. Direct the police and local governments to stop detaining street children purely on the grounds of where they are found working, living, or spending time;
  4. Direct the police to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of attacks on teachers or schools, such as those in Surigao del Sur in September 2015; and
  5. Direct the military to abide by Republic Act 7610 (1992) and AFP Letter Directive No. 34(2009) prohibiting the military use of schools.

There are measures that your government can and should do in the longer term to address violations of children’s rights. We urge you to:

  1. Direct the Department of Labor, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of the Interior and Local Government, and the Department of Social Welfare and Development to assign specific personnel to investigate and monitor child labor in small-scale gold mining, placing them closer to mining areas and providing them with the mandate and resources to conduct regular inspections;
  2. Improve access to education for children working in small-scale mining, including by following-up with students who are frequently absent from school or who drop out, offering bridging programs to get back into school, and using social protection measures to assist vulnerable children in mining areas;
  3. Develop appropriate part-time youth employment opportunities for adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17, which do not interfere with the compulsory schooling requirement for these children;
  4. Improve access to health care for children working in mines for mining-related health conditions, including mercury exposure;
  5. Join the Safe Schools Declaration, which was opened for endorsement in May 2015 and outlines concrete measures that all governments can take to better protect students, teachers, and schools from attack;
  6. Instruct the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to join the National Child Labor Committee and become directly involved in that committee’s actions and deliberations of policies to end child labor; and
  7. Seek the ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury and implement its provisions.

Thank you for your consideration. We would appreciate the opportunity to discuss these and other human rights issues with you and members of your administration.


Brad Adams
Executive Director, Asia division
Human Rights Watch



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