I met these people in 2019 when I visited the Philippines. I was there as part of an international human rights investigation into the crimes of President Duterte’s regime. Tragically the killings are on the increase. I am currently one of the commissioners involved with Investigate PH.
Our latest Report, just released, highlights three aspects of state terror in the Philippines – the War against the Poor (under the guise of the “war on drugs”), the War on Dissent and the War against the Moro People. The release of the this Report follows the call of the outgoing Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, for an investigation into Duterte’s “war on drugs”. This Report will be submitted to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, member states of the Human Rights Council, the UN Secretary-General and the International Criminal Court.
Below are my comments made at the Investigate PH press conference held on 6 July 2021 when we released the report.
The evidence we have collected in this inquiry has brought us to the overwhelming conclusion that President Duterte’s War on Drugs is in fact a war on poor people.
Behind the shocking figures I will shortly share with you are so many tragic stories – of young men killed in front of their families, children left destitute after the main bread winner is murdered, the stigma of false allegations leaving children terrorised by neighbours and school friends.
President Duterte launched his “war on drugs” on 30 June 2016, the day he took office. Between 1 July 2016 and 31 December 2020 the official government figures lists 6,011 deaths in anti-drug operations. It is becoming increasingly understood that these figures are not accurate. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that the figure up to March 2020 was at least 8,663. Other studies cite the number of killings as almost three times higher than that figure.
If the President was serious about countering illegal drug use his government would deal with it as a health issue. But the War on Drugs has not been about assisting drugs users to end their addiction. This war has turned the Philippines into a brutal police state.
Much of the evidence that we have been presented with reveals that the police have executed victims in their home, on the street or after being abducted. We saw photographic evidence that police attempted to cover up their execution of unarmed victims – dead bodies had their arms bound by handcuffs or zip ties suggesting that they were killed while detained and unable to resist. A witness saw the police execute three men and then plant guns on them.
In some cases independent autopsies of victim’s bodies could be carried out. The evidence showed that proper procedures were not followed in the police autopsy. Death certificates were inaccurate. The examination did not include X-rays nor a record of defensive wounds. Clinical evidence from the Professor of Forensic Pathology at the University of the Philippines, Dr Raquel Fortun, revealed instances where a proper autopsy was not conducted.
The impact of these killings do not end when the victim dies. When a person is killed in police operations their loved ones are often left stigmatised leading to social isolation. Financial hardship adds to their suffering.
The ongoing misery is sickening. Funeral parlours often work closely with local police. Some extort huge fees from families before they can retrieve the body of their loved one. Pressure from the police on families to not lodge a complaint is often intense at this time and for years after.
Of all the thousands killed since the drug wars were instigated in 2016 police have only been convicted of one murder. Kian Delos Santos was abducted by police in August 2017. The killing of this young man is known because the local government officers forgot to turn off the CCTV. Despite this solid evidence no police commanders were charged, only three low level police officers.
The Filipino judicial and legislative systems are increasingly complicit in these crimes and in repressing government critics. The police system of killing in the War on Drugs is called “tokhang”, meaning to knock on the door and persuade. It is really “kick in the door and shoot”.
Since 2020 this system has been applied to the War on Dissent, which was considerably expanded by President Duterte’s Executive Order 70. This institutionalised a whole-of-nation approach to defeat progressive forces in the Philippines. This expanded the government departments required to cooperate with the military and the police to include local government, education, health, welfare and in fact all government agencies. Executions of targets during house raids is now commonplace.
The War on Poor People in the guise of a War on Drugs is a giant killing machine that must be stopped.