On January 23rd, members of both the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Marines attempted to serve a warrant to a residential community in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao. The compound was tied to Pendatun Adsis Talusan, a former village chief, who the police suspected of involvement in the illegal drug trade. A gunfight broke out when officers attempted to serve the warrant, killing twelve suspects and one police officer. Mr. Talusan was among those killed.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs turned five years old in July, and it’s hard to estimate how many people it has killed. The New York Times writes that police report 8,000 deaths, most of which, officials claim, were in self-defense. Rights groups, however, believe that many of the suspects were executed extrajudicially. Human Rights Watch places the death count closer to 12,000 since the war on drugs began, with at least 2,555 being attributed to the Philippine National Police and at least 100 being children. A June 2020 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated that police and vigilante violence could bring Duterte’s death toll in excess of 25,000. The government Commission on Human Rights believes the actual death toll is triple the police count.
Any of these numbers are far too high.
Even worse, murders related to the war on drugs have increased by over 50% since the coronavirus pandemic began early last year. According to Human Rights Watch, the pandemic led to an increase in “attacks by the police, military, and unidentified gunmen” on a number of groups, including activists, Indigenous leaders, and journalists. Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said that police have used the government’s COVID-19 curfews and “red-baiting” or “red-tagging” to justify their violence against civilians.
Despite the deaths, the U.N. Human Rights Commission has opted not to conduct an independent probe of rights violations in the Philippines.
As a response, a collection of civil society organizations banded together to create Investigate PH, organized in the Philippines by the International Coalition of Human Rights. The investigative body consists of 10 commissioners, all of whom are prominent political and religious figures. The Diplomat reports that the group will be submitting three reports to the Human Rights Commission., with the first two coming in March and July of 2021.
The International Criminal Court, meanwhile, believes there is “a reasonable basis” to say that Duterte’s war on drugs has involved crimes against humanity and is deciding whether to carry out a full investigation. (The I.C.C. received two complaints accusing Duterte of murder, the New York Times reports, but Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the treaty that established the court.)
Hopefully, with the new administration taking power in the United States, we can expect President Joe Biden to more concretely condemn Duterte’s human rights abuses. The American House of Representatives has received a bill that would suspend arms sales to the Philippines until Duterte commits his regime to human rights reforms, but the bill has been pending since its introduction in October. Biden’s administration should begin to push for this bill and similar actions to condemn the atrocities being committed in the Philippines.
The U.N. has acknowledged that human rights in the Philippines have been violated and abused. It is time for them to step up and launch an independent investigation to officially verify these findings. The I.C.C. should begin its own investigation and seek to prosecute Duterte for inciting violence against civilians who have yet to be convicted of any crime. The international community must stop Duterte’s regime from fostering any more violence against the innocent.
For too long, the burden of fighting against the Duterte regime’s violence has been on local organizing groups and activists in the Philippines. It is the international community’s responsibility to intervene before that violence escalates any further.