Amnesty International recently detailed the results of their latest investigations into the Philippines’ ‘war on drugs’ in their report ‘They Just Kill’. The report alleges that, per the Philippine National Police’s (PNP) own statistics, at least 6600 civilians, mostly impoverished, have been killed in extrajudicial police shootings. Amnesty further contends that tens of thousands more have been killed in “anonymous” shootings, with links having been demonstrated between some of these mysterious slayings and the PNP. Only one conviction of police officers has occurred amidst the ongoing “war”: the highly publicized case of Kian delos Santos. The deaths thus far have been dismissed by Philippine police as necessary self-defence actions in “buy-bust” operations; Amnesty has dismissed this exculpation as insufficient. ‘They Just Kill’ also criticizes the Philippine government for severely punishing drug users, underfunding and underutilizing rehabilitation programs, not informing family members of the deaths of their loved ones, relying on opaque “drug lists” for identifying and harassing suspected users, falsifying evidence, and deliberately obfuscating civilian investigations. As already reported by the Organization For World Peace, the UN Human Rights Council has since voted to investigate potential human rights abuses facilitated by the controversial Philippine war on drugs, a product of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency. The vote evidently responds to growing concern from human rights groups such as Amnesty International.
Duterte has remained adamant on his support of the drug war, rhetorically questioning in a recent speech, “I am asking the human rights people. Is it wrong to say if you destroy my country, I will kill you? Is that a crime for a president, mayor or a governor to say that in public?” In response to the UN Resolution, he’s requested to know the “purpose” of the inquiry. The Philippine government and the PNP have not yet responded to the specific accusations of Amnesty International’s report, such as the presentation of the self-defence narrative as a “script” or the claim that drug policies disproportionately target “poor and marginalized communities.”
Given that the well-being of drug users and the communities they inhabit should be a primary motivating factor behind any drug policy, an anti-drug effort that has resulted in thousands of deaths fully warrants investigation. Although Amnesty maintains, based on its interviews, that many of the slain did not use drugs, high rates of extrajudicial killings would remain equally unjustified in the unlikely event that every victim was an active user. This speculative hypothetical isn’t necessary, however, as Amnesty posits that enforcement agencies rely on a nebulous drug list mired in uncertainty and inaccuracy. Philippine civilians cannot answer whether or not they are on the list, whether they’ve been removed after having been on it, what evidence, if any, placed them on the list originally, or what legal options are at their disposal for challenging their placement. Amnesty charges that the list is often cultivated from hearsay and casual informants.
Claims of self-defence are also frequently unsupported. The police record is often contradicted by witness testimonies or discrediting information such as the victim not owning weaponry. But once again, even if the potential defence of self-defence always and invariably won out, many of Amnesty’s critiques would remain relevant. Families interviewed by Amnesty reported not being able to access police records, the only means by which they can hope to legally challenge the killing of a loved ones. Some families weren’t even informed of the death of a loved one, instead learning of the tragedy via televised news. Amnesty likewise condemns a perceived emphasis on punitive treatment over genuine rehabilitation, postulating that rehabilitation facilities prioritize efficiency and numeric “results” over effective care. Although the government has constructed significantly sized rehabilitation facilities, they remain at low capacity.
Rodrigo Duterte has largely countered external investigations into Philippine drug policies with disdain. In March of this year, Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the Rome statute in response to the International Criminal Court, itself instituted by the statute, as it examined the effects of Philippine drug policy. Yet despite the high death rate from the drug war, Duterte’s legacy in his own country is not wholly negative. On the contrary, research institution Social Weather Stations’ polling has consistently reported high satisfaction ratings. Duterte himself recently boasted a four fifths approval rating, and his own senatorial allies won the Philippine senate with ease in May.
While one can and should be concerned about the possibility of infringing on a nation’s sovereignty and failing to understand the exigencies of its internal policies, the mere fact of a UN investigation need not signal a wholehearted acceptance of Amnesty International’s claims. That said, “They Just Kill” presents a weighty excoriation of Philippine drug policy worthy of consideration, and further investigation should provoke a rightful reckoning with the wisdom of current drug policies in every nation.
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