On June 4th, The UN High Commissioner of Human Rights released a scathing report on the human rights violations present in the Philippines’ war on drugs. The report called for an immediate and independent domestic investigation into widespread allegations of unlawful civilian killings and severe violations of international human rights laws by state-sanctioned forces. Charges included the false planting of evidence, the use of harmful rhetoric by state officials promoting violence against drug users, and blatant ignorance of the universal right of a fair trial.
The UN report highlighted the role of the Philippine government and top national officials in perpetuating the growing human rights crisis in the country. The report concludes that “while there have been important human rights gains in recent years, particularly in economic and social rights, the underpinning focus on national security threats – real and inflated – has led to serious human rights violations, reinforced by harmful rhetoric from high-level officials.” Furthermore, The UN report also emphasized that the violation of human rights have become aggravated over recent years, “successive administrations have mostly employed increasingly violent law enforcement measures and disturbing rhetoric in the campaign against illegal drugs and related crimes.”
However, despite the mounting evidence of human rights violations, the Philippine government continues to deny “that there is a policy to kill people who use drugs and states that all deaths occur during legitimate police operations,” according to the report. The Philippine government can deny such allegations primarily due to a lack of an independent and transparent advisory body over its national security forces.
The Philippines’ Inter-Agency Committee was created in 2012 under Administrative Order 35. The committee was assigned to review cases of “extralegal killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other grave violations involving political, environmental, agrarian and labor activists and media practitioners,” according to the UN’s report. However, the agency does not cover drug-related killings, where the majority of wrongful death complaints are found. Additionally, the High Commissioner of Human Rights noted that the Inter-Agency Committee’s effectiveness “remains limited due to its perceived lack of independence, transparency, and powers.” The committee’s disregard for human rights violations in narcotic related crimes and lack of independence allows for Philippine security forces to remain unpunished. Moreover, Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte has shown no signs of wishing to increase the committee’s effectiveness.
President Duterte’s 2016 presidential campaign pledged to kill criminals and eliminate corruption in drugs in up to 6 months following his executive appointment. Duterte’s campaign draws from his experience as mayor of Davao City, where “hundreds of extrajudicial killings were documented which, according to the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, ‘bore officially-sanctioned character’,” according to the UN’s report. Duterte’s mayorship revealed he could sanction murder if the killings were related to drug activity. Without widespread backlash for Duterte’s unlawful methods of law and order, he had no incentive to cease this behavior on the national level after his presidential election. However, the international community and pressure for domestic reform can aid in reestablishing human rights in the country.
The June 2020 UN High Commissioner’s Report called for an immediate investigation into the Philippine government. Nonetheless, considering the Philippines’ history of fronting investigations and surveillance of its security forces, it is possible that a domestic inquiry could suffer from internal corruption. It is essential for the United Nations, with the backing of hegemonic state actors and human rights advocacy groups, to pressure the Philippines into reform.
The Inter-Agency Committee must be replaced with an independent and transparent body that includes the review of human rights violations in drug-related crimes. The reformed committee needs to have the power to look into all wrongful death complaints and assure fair trials in their regard. For this to happen, there must be reform in the Philippines’ legal and policing systems to bring it in compliance with the international human rights regime.
The UN High commissioner’s report emphasized that “under international human rights law, the Philippines is obliged to establish rules and procedures for mandatory reporting, review, and investigation of lethal and other life-threatening incidents by law enforcement personnel.” The Philippines cannot be expected to present this reform on their own. Instead, the international community will need to pressure the state through non-violent means of naming and shaming and possible trade sanctions until the Philippines complies.
The right to life and a fair trial are universal human rights, that when undermined, threaten the foundations of democracy and peace. As a collective species, we cannot allow these rights to remain unheard of in the Philippines. It is the responsibility of those in positions of authority to protect individuals without a voice. Thus, the lack of the Philippines’ government to accept such responsibilities does not remove the problem but shifts the burden to those that can cause change, such as the global public and international community.