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The Philippines’ ‘Drug War’ Deaths Denial Complex

Government Swaps Apologists for ‘Alternative Facts’ Defense

Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte raises a clenched fist next to his running mate Vice Presidential candidate Alan Peter Cayetano during an election campaigning for May 2016 national elections in Silang, Cavite southwest of Manila Philippines April 22, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

The Philippine government of President Rodrigo Duterte has a new tactic to deflect mounting foreign criticism of its murderous “war on drugs” that has killed thousands: simply deny those deaths are anything out of the ordinary.

On Monday, Philippine Senator Alan Peter Cayetano deployed that approach in Geneva at the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Philippines’ human rights record. Cayetano rejected outright reports of high death tolls linked to the drug war as “alternative facts” with no basis in reality. He dismissed statistical evidence and well-documented accounts of a surge in killings of suspected drug users and dealers since Duterte took office last June as a baseless “political tactic” wielded by the president’s critics.

Jennelyn Olaires, 26, weeps over the body of her partner, who was killed on a street by a vigilante group, according to police, in a spate of drug related killings in Pasay city, Metro Manila, Philippines July 23, 2016. A sign on a cardboard found near th

Since taking office in June 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has carried out a “war on drugs” resulting in the deaths of over 12,000 Filipinos.

Essential Background

Cayetano’s performance was a master-class in innovative defense of the indefensible. But it can’t negate data that shows the drug war has killed of more than 7,000 people since July, mostly poor urban Filipinos. And it didn’t blunt criticism of Duterte’s drug war by numerous UN member countries from all regions of the world, including Germany, Japan, Chile, Ghana, and Canada, who called for the killings to stop and for the Philippine government to ensure accountability for the deaths. China was one of the few countries that provided Cayetano a sympathetic ear, praising the Philippine government for what it described as its “remarkable achievements” in protecting human rights.

The Philippine government’s new strategy of denial suggests a recognition its previous reliance on high-profile official apologists to deflect public criticism wasn’t working. Those apologists, including Philippine National Police Director-General Ronald Dela Rosa and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, have publicly acknowledged the bloodshed but sought to justify it as an unavoidable cost of the drug war. That craven rhetoric has neither deterred calls for a UN-led independent probe into the killings nor prevented the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) from warning of possible ICC prosecution of “any person in the Philippines who incites or engages in acts of mass violence.”

The Philippine government is delusional if it believes that cynical public exercises of fact-denial by official mouthpieces such as Cayetano can paper over the scale and savagery of Duterte’s drug war. Instead, the global calls for accountability are likely to only grow louder.

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