If you live in an impoverished urban area in the Philippines today, you have good reason to fear that you or a family member could get caught up in President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous “war on drugs.” And if you’re a politician, activist, or journalist outspoken about the drug war, be prepared for harassment and intimidation emanating from the highest levels of government.
The Philippines’ descent into an all-out human rights crisis, with thousands of extrajudicial executions and a crackdown on basic liberties, has generated an outcry, but no strong action, from United Nations members states. The killings started soon after Duterte took office in June 2016 and continue to this day. The police insist that those killed were drug dealers and users resisting arrest, but there have been countless credible reports of the police and their agents planting guns and drugs on victims’ bodies to justify their execution-style killings.
In March 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that an estimated 27,000 people had been killed, with no one brought to justice except for in one high-profile case. The police deny this figure but do admit to killing more than 6,600 people, only underscoring the need for serious investigations, which the government has unsurprisingly been unwilling to undertake.
The intrepid human rights defenders, politicians and journalists willing to report on or denounce the “drug war” have been harassed, threatened, and arrested. Many activists and human rights defenders have been killed in the context of the government’s counterinsurgency campaign.
The Philippines is a member of the UN Human Rights Council and thus is expected to uphold the highest standards of human rights. Instead, the government has refused to cooperate with UN rights mechanisms and even publicly smeared UN experts who condemn its violations. As early as June 2017, a large group of states expressed their concern in a joint statement at the Council. Two further statements followed – the last of which foreshadowed formal Council action if the situation did not improve.
And it hasn’t. The killings continue, as do flagrant violations of free expression. As bodies pile up in Manila and other urban areas, Duterte has promised that his “drug war” will only get harsher.
In early June, 11 UN human rights experts denounced the “staggering number of unlawful deaths and police killings” and called on the Council to set up an independent inquiry.
UN member states stood by while thousands were killed, but it’s not too late for them to act to prevent the killing of thousands more. When the Council convenes in Geneva today, they have an opportunity to do just that – by urgently establishing an international investigation.