Will Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop deploy her warm smile or her famous “death stare” when she meets Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte in his hometown of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao this week? Surely, Duterte – the instigator of a “drug war” that has killed more than 7,000 people in seven months – is worthy only of the latter.
As mayor of Davao City for 20 years, Duterte repeatedly endorsed an anti-crime campaign that involved death squads on motorcycles gunning down petty criminals, drug dealers and street children in cold blood. Hundreds were murdered – a toll that in retrospect looks quaint.
As president, Duterte brought the “Davao Death Squad” to Manila and the rest of the country.
“If you are still into drugs, I am going to kill you,” Duterte said after winning the Philippine presidential election. “Don’t take this as a joke. I’m not trying to make you laugh. Sons of bitches, I’ll really kill you.”
A recent report by Human Rights Watch exposes how Duterte and his government have systematically carried that promise out. Our research shows how police have falsified evidence to justify unlawful killings of suspected drug dealers and users. Planting drugs and guns at the crime scene, police have tried to make murders look like self-defence, but witnesses to these killings contradict the police’s canned accounts.
Duterte has praised the soaring body count as proof of the “success” of his “war on drugs.” But the victims, almost invariably people struggling to survive in the most impoverished slums in Manila or other urban areas, show that the “war on drugs” is a war on the poor.
On one of my last visits to Davao City, I testified before the Philippine Commission on Human Rights about government complicity in the Davao Death Squad killings. Many local residents spoke with a reverence about their mayor and how he had made the city “safe.”
But safe only for some. If you lived in the slums, took drugs or had friends or family involved in criminal activity, then you were, in the words of Mayor Duterte, “a legitimate target for assassination.” I met a brave and outspoken mother, Clarita Alia, who had lost four of her sons to the Davao Death Squad, each killed one after the other after threats from police.
And now, throughout the Philippines, every day there are more and more mums like Clarita Alia losing their children to police violence – last September, the Mesa family lost two sons killed six days apart. When the second son, Danilo, was found executed after having been taken into police custody, they had no money for a burial so buried him in a mass grave.
Human Rights Watch has called for a United Nations-led investigation into the “drug war” killings, which could amount to crimes against humanity under international law. Duterte could be criminally liable for instigating the police killing campaign, inciting murders of drug suspects, and as a matter of command responsibility for taking no action to stop the killings and prosecuting those responsible.
Why is Australia’s foreign minister so eager to meet with Duterte that she’s willing to boost his global and domestic credibility by having photo ops in his hometown, the birthplace of the death squads? Rescheduling could have ensured a more formal, less cozy, meeting in Manila. And especially in a year when Australia is trying to demonstrate its human rights credentials by running for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
Bishop needs to be careful not to allow her visit to provide legitimacy to Duterte’s policies. Duterte is sure to use the visit to show international acceptance of his “war on drugs” and boost flagging support for the killing campaign at home. To prevent this, Bishop will need to take a strong, public stance not only against the killings, but of the need to investigate those responsible.
In October, Bishop urged the Philippines “to ensure the cessation of extrajudicial killings and offer all Filipino citizens their rights according to the country’s criminal justice system.” But she will need to be more forthright and put some muscle behind her concerns.
She should announce that Australia will suspend all police assistance and training programs until the government ends its abusive war on drugs and allows an international investigation into the unlawful killings, given the government’s failure to conduct its own.
In Manila, Bishop needs to make time to visit to the courageous Senator Leila de Lima, a former justice minister who is now in police detention because of her outspoken criticism of the blood-soaked campaign.
De Lima, while chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, initiated the first investigation into the Davao Death Squad at which I testified. As a senator, she launched an inquiry into the drug killings. But her efforts to hold the administration to account resulted in her arrest last month following a relentless government campaign of harassment and intimidation.
At all costs, Bishop should think long and hard before smiling for selfies with someone who could eventually be indicted by the International Criminal Court.
Instead she should take a strong stand for protecting the human rights of all Filipinos. Otherwise, it will look like Australia’s foreign minister just made a pilgrimage to the home of a self-confessed killer.