New People’s Army rebels sing during an anniversary celebration in Surigao del Sur province in the southern Philippines, December 2010. 

© 2010 Erik de Castro / Reuters

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte turned up his incendiary rhetoric against the communist insurgency, declaring last week that he would pay members of indigenous communities 20,000 pesos (US$380) for each rebel they killed.

Duterte said at a press briefing on Friday that he would train the Lumad – the collective name for indigenous peoples in the southern Philippines – to be paramilitaries. “You want money? I'll give you money," he said. “I will make it 20,000 pesos per head.”

Duterte made the statement after the reported killing that week of a Lumad leader in Surigao del Sur province by the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Duterte accused the NPA of victimizing the Lumad, who have long suffered extreme poverty and government neglect that make them attractive for recruitment by the rebels.

Duterte’s offer of a bounty for killing communist rebels, however, encourages war crimes such as shooting enemy fighters who have surrendered or are wounded, or who are civilians protected from attack. This is not the first time the president has made public statements that would encourage laws-of-war violations. The same day, he told soldiers to shoot female rebels in their vaginas, eliciting a public outcry. In July, he threatened to bomb Lumad schools that allegedly harbored rebels. In March, he ordered state forces to “go ahead, flatten the hills” during counter-insurgency operations.

Duterte’s pronouncements normalize the idea that government security forces can do as they wish to defeat their enemies—including committing summary executions and sexual violence. Such rhetoric is especially dangerous because the Philippines has a history of Lumad community members being on both sides of the country’s many internal conflicts, as both fighters and victims. This includes joining paramilitaries and militias during the nearly half-century long Maoist insurgency and equally protracted Islamic separatist movements and local conflicts in the south.

Duterte needs to stop encouraging his troops to commit war crimes and instead promote measures to ensure that those responsible for abuses – including members of rebel groups and militias – are held accountable in accordance with international law. Respecting rights rather than offering bounties is the best way to help the Lumad.