A victim’s relative cries behind the police line at the site of a drug-related shooting in metro Manila, Philippines, June 19, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(New York) – President Rodrigo Duterte has unleashed a human rights calamity on the Philippines in his first year in office, Human Rights Watch said today. The government’s murderous “war on drugs,” drug-related overcrowding of jails, and the harassment and prosecution of drug war critics has caused a steep decline in respect for basic rights since Duterte’s inauguration on June 30, 2016.

Security forces and “unidentified gunmen” have killed at least 7,000 suspected drug users and dealers since July 1, including 3,116 killings by police, according to government data. Yet the Duterte administration has rejected all domestic and international calls for accountability for these abuses, and instead has denied any government responsibility for the thousands of drug war deaths.

“President Duterte took office promising to protect human rights, but has instead spent his first year in office as a boisterous instigator for an unlawful killing campaign,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “Duterte has supported and incited ‘drug war’ killings while retaliating against those fearless enough to challenge his assault on human rights.”

Human Rights Watch field research found that government claims that the deaths of suspected drug users and dealers were lawful were blatant falsehoods. Interviews with witnesses and victims’ relatives and analysis of police records expose a pattern of unlawful police conduct designed to paint a veneer of legality over extrajudicial executions that may amount to crimes against humanity.

While the Philippine National Police have publicly sought to distinguish between suspects killed while resisting arrest and killings by “unknown gunmen” or “vigilantes,” Human Rights Watch found no such distinction in the cases investigated. In several such cases, the police dismissed allegations of involvement when only hours before the suspects had been in police custody. Such cases call into question government assertions that the majority of killings were carried out by vigilantes or rival drug gangs.

The “war on drugs” has also worsened the already dire conditions of Philippine jail facilities, including inadequate food and unsanitary conditions. Government data indicates that the country’s jail facilities run by the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, which have a maximum capacity of 20,399, currently hold nearly 132,000 detainees, an overwhelming majority of them awaiting trial or sentencing. The bureau attributes the overcrowding to the arrest of tens of thousands of suspected drug users and dealers since the anti-drug campaign began. The drug war has also boosted the number of “secret jails” in which police unlawfully detain suspects and demand bribes in exchange for release.

The Duterte administration has subjected prominent critics of the government’s anti-drug campaign to harassment, intimidation, and even arrest. In February 2017, the police detained Senator Leila de Lima on politically motivated drug charges. Her arrest followed a relentless government campaign against her in evident response to her outspoken criticism of Duterte’s “war on drugs” and her calls for accountability. Other critics of the killings – including activists, journalists, international officials, and ordinary Filipinos – have been threatened online by pro-Duterte supporters and trolls. Among those targeted were Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, and international experts on drug dependency.

“During his first year in office, President Duterte and his government have demonstrated a fundamental unwillingness to respect rights or provide justice for people whose rights have been violated,” Kine said. “A UN-led international investigation is desperately needed to help stop the slaughter and press for accountability for Duterte’s human rights catastrophe.”