Veiled protesters, mostly relatives of victims of alleged extra-judicial killings, display placards during a protest outside the Philippine military and police camps in Quezon City, Philippines on Wednesday, July 17, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo/Bullit Marquez
(Manila) – The Philippine government’s murderous “war on drugs” remained the Philippines’ gravest human rights concern in 2019, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2020. Security forces were also implicated in often deadly attacks on activists.

“President Duterte’s anti-drug campaign remains as brutal as when it started, with drug suspects being killed regularly across the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Four years into the ‘drug war,’ the need for international mechanisms to provide accountability is as great as ever.”

In the 652-page World Report 2020, its 30th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the Chinese government, which depends on repression to stay in power, is carrying out the most intense attack on the global human rights system in decades. He finds that Beijing’s actions both encourage and gain support from autocratic populists around the globe, while Chinese authorities use their economic clout to deter criticism from other governments. It is urgent to resist this assault, which threatens decades of progress on human rights and our future.

Duterte’s appointment in November of Vice President Leni Robredo as co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee Against Drugs (ICAD) raised hopes that drug campaign violence would be tempered. But Duterte fired Robredo, an opponent of the anti-drug campaign, just days later.

In July, the Philippine National Police reported that its forces had killed more than 5,500 people during drug raids. Local rights groups as well as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights contend that the number could be more than 27,000. Except for three police officers involved in a highly publicized killing in August 2017, no one has been convicted in any “drug war” killings. Duterte continued to defend the drug war and promised to protect law enforcement officers who killed drug suspects in these raids.

In December 2019, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency reported that its forces had killed 5,552 people during drug raids from July 1, 2016 to November 30, 2019. The International Criminal Court (ICC) had yet to conclude its preliminary examination into “drug war” killings, which it began in February 2018. A UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on the Philippines adopted in July 2019 directs the UN human rights office to issue a report in June 2020.

There was an upsurge in 2019 in often deadly attacks against left-wing activists, including peasant leaders, environmentalists, tribal leaders, and religious figures who were deemed to be linked to the communist New People’s Army (NPA). Violence was particularly high on the island of Negros, where alleged state security forces killed peasants, their leaders, environmentalists, religious leaders, and their community supporters.

Left-wing, politically active groups faced police raids that resulted in arbitrary arrests and detention. Groups alleged that police planted weapons and other “evidence” to justify the raids and arrests. The government and military frequently labeled these groups and individuals as communist rebels or sympathizers, a practice commonly known as “red tagging.” Some journalists also faced similar political attacks.

As with the anti-drug campaign, the Duterte administration has done little to investigate and prosecute those responsible for politically motivated attacks against activists. Duterte has instead seemingly encouraged such attacks, for instance, in August calling on the military to “implement a more severe measure” against the insurgency.

“There are sadly no signs that President Duterte is going to end ‘drug war’ killings or act to stop attacks on activists,” Robertson said. “That makes it all the more important for international institutions like the International Criminal Court and the UN Human Rights Council to do what they can to hold Duterte and other senior officials to account for their abuses.”