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Philippines: Endorse UN Inquiry into ‘Drug War’ Killings

Independent Investigation Needed to Clarify Death Toll, Promote Accountability

Protesters hold placards and lit candles at the wake of Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old high school student, who was among the people shot dead last week in an escalation of President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, in Caloocan City, Metro Manila, Philippines on August 21, 2017.  © 2017 Erik De Castro / Reuters

(New York) – The Philippine government should urgently support the creation of a United Nations-led investigation into the thousands of killings linked to its “war on drugs,” Human Rights Watch said today. A UN-led probe would both help clarify the disparity in official and independent estimates of killings in the anti-drug campaign and facilitate accountability for unlawful deaths.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) assert that 3,968 drug suspects died in “legitimate police operations” from July 2016 to January 17, 2018. However, independent estimates of deaths linked to the “drug war” are considerably higher. The nongovernmental groups Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates and the International Drug Policy Consortium, as well as media outlets including the Sydney Morning Herald, estimate the number of drug war deaths at more than 12,000. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines estimates that there have been more than 13,000 killings linked to the anti-drug campaign. By any measure, even the PNP’s estimate of drug war deaths is an alarming number of killings that warrant an independent investigation.

“The glaring disparity between the Philippine government’s official death toll and those of credible independent observers underscores the urgent need for a UN-led independent investigation into killings since the drug war began in June 2016,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “The government should welcome a UN effort to establish an impartial and verifiable death toll as a crucial first step in accountability for wrongful deaths.”

The government and the PNP have sown confusion over the “drug war” death toll since January 2017, when the police temporarily stopped issuing timely drug campaign-related data following revelations that police anti-drug personnel had abducted and murdered a South Korean businessman. At the time of that suspension, the PNP attributed a total of 7,080 deaths to police operations as well as “vigilante-style or unexplained killings” between July 1, 2016 and January 31, 2017. In May 2017, the government started issuing a “unitary report” of drug war data christened #RealNumbersPH, combining statistics from agencies including the PNP, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Department of Health.

An analysis of drug war data during 2017 by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism criticized official statistics as “writ in riddles and feature flawed and inflated numbers that are wildly different from what the primary drug-war data source, the PNP, had reported on the same dates or for the same covered periods.” The center also questioned the police decision to expand the number of categories of killings it records, describing those categories as having “changed arbitrarily over time, and may thus raise questions about numbers shaving or double counting.” It concluded that this practice “paved the way to another level of confusion in clustering and comparing the numbers.”

The need for a UN-led investigation is urgent because the PNP on January 29 resumed its anti-drug operations after a three-month suspension following public outrage related to the police killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos. On January 30, prosecutors in Caloocan City filed murder charges against three police officers implicated in the teen’s death.

PNP Director-General Ronald dela Rosa has vowed that the police anti-drug operations will be “transparent” and that the “mistakes of the past will no longer be repeated.” The lack of meaningful accountability for drug war deaths over the past year and a half undercuts those assertions. Dela Rosa has dismissed calls for independent investigations as “legal harassment” and said that the demand “dampens the morale” of police officers. In August, President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to pardon and promote any police personnel implicated in unlawful killings.

UN member countries at the Human Rights Council should press for a UN-led investigation into the “drug war killings.” In 2017, governments led by Iceland issued two joint statements that urged the Philippine government to “take all necessary measures to bring these killings to an end” and to “cooperate with the international community to pursue appropriate investigations into these incidents.”

President Duterte has repeatedly subjected the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, to profanity-laced ridicule for her repeated official requests to visit the Philippines. However, in October, Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano told UN Secretary-General António Guterres that the Philippine government would “fully cooperate and work with” UN independent experts “to conduct a fair an objective assessment of the human rights situation in the country.” The Philippine government has not followed through on this commitment.

“The Philippine government can either seek UN assistance to investigate abuses in its anti-drug campaign or be the subject of a UN Human Rights Council resolution creating an investigatory body to do the job,” Kine said. “Ultimately, those responsible for drug war murders will be brought to justice. The question for Philippine officials is whether they want to be assisting the prosecutor or facing one.”

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