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Philippine President’s Tired, Old ‘Drug War’ Rhetoric

Duterte Doubles Down on Brutal Policy, Imperiling UN Program

Families of victims of alleged extrajudicial killings in the so-called "war on drugs" with portraits of their slain relatives on July 9, 2019, in Manila, Philippines. © 2019 Bullit Marquez/AP Images

The Philippine government has extolled a new United Nations program as a clear indication of its commitment to human rights – a spin that flies in the face of the bloody rights catastrophe that is the government’s “war on drugs.”

On July 24, Manila and the UN formalized a “human rights program” that aims, on paper at least, to address the country’s human rights problems.

Just two days later, during Monday’s State of the Nation Address, President Rodrigo Duterte touted his “accomplishments” in the brutal “war on drugs” in which thousands have been killed by the police. He dared the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate him, and even urged his forces to kill more people.

Human Rights Watch and other organizations have urged the UN Human Rights Council to launch an independent investigation into these killings. Instead, the council paved the way for the creation of a program that has been criticized by rights defenders as deeply inadequate.

The program offers areas of engagement with the government that might, in the long run, improve the quality of investigations, increase data-gathering about police violations, and encourage a human rights-based approach to drug control. It will be overseen by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which will be responsible for ensuring its involvement is not instrumentalized to provide a veneer of accountability to the Duterte administration while abuses persist.

But even if successful, the UN’s support will not address the core problem: the program has no prospect of convincing Duterte to reverse course and hold abusive officials to account. After all, the killings continue and accountability is practically zero.

The agreement with the UN should not by itself be considered progress, which should be measured by accountability and effective reforms.

Which brings us to Duterte’s tired, old rhetoric in his State of the Nation Address. By doubling down on his murderous policy, he is revealing his government’s lack of commitment to the UN program his government just announced. The true test of the administration’s sincerity will be its willingness to end state-sanctioned killings and uphold its international human rights obligations. Manila can start by supporting genuine accountability and by cooperating with the ICC investigation.


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