(New York) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s call for police to shoot human rights activists who are “obstructing justice” places all members of the country’s human rights community in grave danger, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 16, 2017, Duterte instructed Philippine National Police personnel to “shoot those who are part of [drug activity]. If they [members of human rights organizations] are obstructing justice, you shoot them.”
Duterte should immediately withdraw his statement or be investigated for possibly instigating or inciting violence against Philippine human rights advocates.
“President Duterte’s threats against human rights activists is like painting a target on the backs of courageous people working to protect the rights and upholding the dignity of all Filipinos,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “Duterte should retract his reprehensible remarks immediately before there is more blood on his hands.”
Duterte’s threat was part of a longer harangue against what he described as an unfair criticism of his abusive “war on drugs,” which has killed at least 7,000 Filipinos since he took office in June 2016. Duterte alleged that human rights organizations criticized his drug war while protecting alleged criminals. “When it comes to criminals, [human rights organizations] will proclaim, 'human rights violations' [to protect them]," Duterte said.
Duterte also warned that human rights organizations may face criminal investigations for criticizing his anti-drug campaign. “One of these days, you human rights groups, I will also investigate you. That's the truth. For conspiracy,” Duterte said.
Duterte previously threatened to kill human rights defenders in December 2016, allegedly for fostering drug use in the country. He followed up that threat a month later by warning that he would extend his anti-drug campaign to the lawyers of alleged drug users and dealers. His call on police to consider human rights advocates legitimate drug-war targets is a sinister escalation in his rhetoric, Human Rights Watch said.
Duterte has also publicly denounced the national Commission on Human Rights (CHR). During a news conference following his State of the Nation Address on July 24, 2017, Duterte threatened to block any CHR investigations of alleged abuses by Philippine security forces and stated that the commission would be “better abolished.” Duterte publicly backtracked on his threat on August 2 by insisting it had been a “joke.”
The commission’s chairman, Chito Gascon, has earned Duterte’s enmity by publicly criticizing the scale of the “drug war” killings as “unprecedented” and declaring that the death toll had overwhelmed the commission’s capacity to adequately investigate them. Gascon has also warned that a government failure to stop the killings might prompt an investigation by the International Criminal Court, of which the Philippines is a member.
Human Rights Watch field research found that government claims that the deaths of suspected drug users and dealers were lawful but were blatant falsehoods. The research painted a chilling portrait of mostly impoverished urban slum dwellers being gunned down in state-sanctioned “death squad” operations that ignore rule-of-law protections. Interviews with witnesses and victims’ relatives and analysis of police records exposed a pattern of unlawful police conduct designed to paint a veneer of legality over extrajudicial executions that may amount to crimes against humanity. The investigations revealed that police routinely execute drug suspects and then cover up their crimes by planting drugs and guns at the scene.
Efforts to seek accountability for drug-war deaths have gone nowhere, Human Rights Watch said. The Philippine National Police director-general, Ronald dela Rosa, has rejected calls for a thorough and impartial investigation of the killings as “legal harassment” and said it “dampens the morale” of police officers. Duterte and some of his key ministers have praised the killings as proof of the “success” of the anti-drug campaign.
Duterte and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre III have sought to justify their total disregard for the rule of law and due legal process for “drug personalities” by questioning the humanity of suspected drug users and drug dealers. Duterte’s instigation of unlawful police violence and the incitement of vigilante killings may amount to crimes against humanity, in violation of international law.
“Duterte is on notice that his death threats against human rights advocates could pave the way for prosecution for crimes against humanity,” Kine said. “Duterte’s assault on accountability highlights the urgent need for a UN-led international investigation into his drug-war slaughter.”