Protesters display slogans condemning the recent government attacks on activists during a rally near the Malacanang presidential palace on March 8, 2021 in Manila, Philippines. © 2021 AP Photo/Aaron Favila

(New York) – Philippine security force raids that killed nine activists on March 7, 2021, highlight the need for United Nations member countries to decisively address the worsening human rights situation in the Philippines, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights should consider deploying a “rapid response unit” to investigate the recent spate of killings of activists.

Police and military personnel killed the nine activists and arrested six others during raids on March 7 in the southern Luzon provinces of Laguna, Batangas, Cavite, and Rizal, south of the capital, Manila. The police claimed the operations were meant to arrest alleged communist New People’s Army rebels identified in search warrants issued by two Manila courts. The Philippine security forces have a long history of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary arrests of leftist activists, human rights defenders, and others.

“The Southern Luzon raids were apparent politically motivated killings that the police and military have sought to justify with unconvincing justifications that echo ‘drug war’ claims,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “UN member states should see through this deadly deception and press for international action that would hold the Duterte administration to account.”

The raids were part of what the government called Coplan Asval, a “simultaneous implementation of search warrants” by teams consisting of police and military units. They occurred two days after President Rodrigo Duterte urged law enforcement to “kill” communists and to disregard human rights – a threat that he had made several times in the past.

The police said the raids were legitimate because weapons were found in the victims’ possession and those arrested allegedly fought back – a claim police frequently make to explain the killing of alleged drug suspects in the government’s abusive “war on drugs.” Many of these claims, Human Rights Watch and others have found in their investigations of the “drug war” killings, had no factual basis.

The raids also bore similarities to raids in December 2020 in Capiz and Iloilo provinces in the central Philippines, in which nine members of an Indigenous peoples group died. As in the Southern Luzon raids, the police claimed that those killed had fought back. Similarly, the victims in all of these raids belonged to groups that the government had earlier “red-tagged,” accusing them of being communist guerrillas or their supporters. Members of Congress have called for an investigation into those raids.

Using combined elements of the police and military to target individuals or groups alleged to be communist rebels, and raiding separate areas simultaneously, was earlier used on Negros island in the central Philippines. Police and the military were implicated in the killings of activists, farm workers, and a lawyer. The current chief of the Philippine National Police, Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas, oversaw these operations when he was chief of police in that area. A Senate report released in January 2020 demanded an investigation but that recommendation was not heeded.

Leftist activists in the Philippines have long been targets of the government’s counterinsurgency operations, which often involved targeted killings and which Human Rights Watch detailed in reports published in 2007 and 2011. The government accuses these activists of being New People’s Army members or supporters, and makes no distinction between armed fighters and political activists, who are subjected to the often deadly “red-tagging.”

The UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution in 2020 seeking “technical assistance” and “capacity building” for the Philippines in the face of thousands of killings of drug suspects and activists by law enforcement during questionable police operations. Local rights defenders considered the resolution insufficient to address the crisis that has been unfolding in the country since Duterte was elected in 2016. The South Luzon killings and similar incidents in recent months show the need for an independent, international inquiry into rights abuses in the Philippines, Human Rights Watch said. Concerned countries should act jointly to advance this call as a matter of priority.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should deploy a “rapid response unit” to the Philippines to investigate the killings, Human Rights Watch said. The UN human rights office is mandated to send such units to respond to humanitarian and human rights crises around the world.

“The Philippine government’s ‘dirty war’ against political activists needs to stop,” Robertson said. “Concerned governments should support meaningful efforts to hold the Duterte government to account for grave human rights violations.”