Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano on Saturday attacked Human Rights Watch for “deliberately misrepresenting” the scale of the killings of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” to create an “unfair and unjust image” of the country. Cayetano also accused Human Rights Watch of having “politicized the [drug war] issue for its own gain and has not done any real research, study or investigation on the human rights situation in the Philippines.”
Cayetano’s groundless accusations come as no surprise, given his record as Duterte’s chief denier of the growing evidence linking state-sanctioned killings to the anti-drug campaign. They are the latest manifestation of the government’s distraction strategy that appears aimed to sideline domestic and international demands for accountability for what nongovernmental organizations and media outlets estimate is a drug war death toll of more than 12,000 people over the past 18 months. In September at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Cayetano declared the “drug war” a “necessary instrument to preserve and protect the human rights of all Filipinos and was never an instrument to violate human rights.” That demonstrably false declaration did more than add gross insult to injury for family members of the anti-drug campaign’s victims, including children. It also airbrushed Human Rights Watch and investigative journalists who have demonstrated that many of those deaths amount to extrajudicial killings by Philippine National Police personnel and their agents.
Human Rights Watch joins a growing list of institutions and people – including UN officials – targeted for harassment and intimidation for demanding accountability for abuses linked to the drug war. The government has even jailed Senator Leila de Lima, who challenged the lawfulness of Duterte’s drug war, on politically motivated drugs charges. Last week, the government threatened to close Rappler.com, a start-up media platform that has published numerous investigative stories exposing Philippine National Police involvement in the summary killings.
What you won’t hear is Cayetano calling for justice for those thousands of deaths. The government has made no genuine efforts to seek accountability for drug war abuses. There have been no successful prosecutions or convictions of police implicated in the killings, despite compelling evidence. Duterte has publicly vowed to pardon, reinstate, and promote officers convicted of extrajudicial killings.
That hostility to accountability underscores the need for a UN-led international investigation of the killings to help expose the extent of the abuses and to determine possible targets for a criminal investigation, including possible prosecutions for crimes against humanity.