President Rodrigo Duterte’s official spokesperson Harry Roque at the House of Congress in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines May 15, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque alleged on Monday that “some human rights groups have become unwitting tools of drug lords to hinder the strides made by the administration.” That echoed recent comments by Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano equating efforts of some unnamed human rights organizations to stop President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous “war on drugs” with “being used by drug lords.”

Cayetano said that human rights organizations demanding accountability for the carnage of the anti-drug campaign that has killed more than 12,000 people since Duterte took office in June 2016 were doing so “for politics, for business.” He criticized rights groups for “pushing an advocacy, an ideology” not based on “impartial and independent investigation.” Such public statements are just the latest salvo in the government campaign of denial and distraction to dodge growing international outrage against Duterte’s “war on drugs.”

But these allegations are more than just gratuitous slurs aimed at undermining the integrity of already beleaguered Philippine human rights activists pushing back against the Duterte government’s systematic attack on rule of law and its instigation and incitement of possible crimes against humanity. Publicly linking human rights groups with “drug lords” constitutes a sinister veiled threat in a country in which government-compiled “watch lists” of suspected drug users and drug dealers have been linked to many of the “drug war’s” thousands of victims. This is a familiar government tactic. Earlier this month the government put at grave risk more than 600 people – among them a United Nations human rights expert and dozens of leftist activists – by labeling them as members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).

Duterte and his minions are misguided if they believe that gross intimidation tactics can derail moves toward “drug war” accountability by the International Criminal Court and the UN. Instead, the government’s moves to put Filipino human rights activists in potential harm’s way through dangerous, baseless accusations will likely only reinforce international resolve to challenge Duterte’s rights violations.