During the government’s “war on drugs” the Philippines National Police and armed vigilantes perpetrated extrajudicial killings that may amount to crimes against humanity.
Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office during June 2016, thousands of people have been extrajudicially killed during his proclaimed “war on drugs.” According to the Philippines government’s official figures 8,663 suspects have been killed in police operations and by unidentified gunman carrying out vigilante-style executions of alleged drug offenders, with thousands of deaths still under investigation. Human rights monitors in the country indicate the number could be more than triple the official figure. The majority of the killings took place between 2016-2018, but police and armed vigilantes continue to perpetrate extrajudicial killings of those perceived to be involved in illicit drug activity. Human Rights Watch and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have reported that official reports of killings committed during the “war on drugs” are often contradicted by eyewitness accounts and that police have routinely planted evidence.
On 4 June 2020 OHCHR released a report on the human rights situation in the Philippines, focused primarily on the period from 2015-2020. The report found systematic and long-standing human rights abuses by the government, including killings and arbitrary detentions during the so-called “war on drugs.” The report also found evidence of at least 248 targeted killings of journalists and human rights defenders.
President Duterte has compared his “war on drugs” with the Holocaust and declared his willingness to “slaughter” millions of suspected drug abusers. He has publicly called upon law enforcement to shoot and kill alleged criminals. Duterte also recently threatened to kill violators of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Other high-ranking government officials have echoed these sentiments, including the former Justice Secretary, who stated that the killings could not be deemed crimes against humanity as drug offenders were not “part of humanity.” President Duterte has silenced those opposed to the killings, including by arresting, imprisoning and removing his critics from their government posts and threatening to abolish the constitutionally-mandated Philippines Commission on Human Rights.
Since 2017 there have been numerous domestic and international attempts to halt the so-called “war on drugs” and hold perpetrators accountable, including the filing of a Supreme Court injunction in an attempt to halt the “war on drugs” and multiple complaints filed by Philippine lawyers and victims’ families at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Only three police officers have been prosecuted for their involvement in the “war on drugs.”
The “war on drugs” places populations at risk of extrajudicial killings that may amount to crimes against humanity. While the government of the Philippines has sovereign authority to maintain law and order within its borders, including by punishing those who deal in illegal drugs, it is obligated to do so with respect to International Human Rights Law. By openly calling for armed vigilantes to join his “war on drugs” and promising amnesty for police officers involved in drug-related killings, President Duterte has actively promoted an atmosphere of impunity for murder. President Duterte has also used his widespread public support to legitimize the killings.
The government of the Philippines is failing to uphold its Responsibility to Protect all populations from crimes against humanity, including those accused of drug offenses.
On 8 March 2017 then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, called for an independent investigation into extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. On 11 July 2019 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) passed its first resolution on the situation of human rights in the Philippines requesting the High Commissioner to issue a report on the situation.
On 8 February 2018 the Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, announced the opening of a preliminary examination into possible crimes against humanity committed in the Philippines “war on drugs.” The Philippines has subsequently withdrawn from membership in the Court.
National authorities in the Philippines must restore the rule of law and immediately halt widespread extrajudicial killings. The government of the Philippines should also allow access to UN special procedures mandate holders.
The HRC should continue to closely monitor the situation in the Philippines. The international community should establish an independent investigation into extrajudicial killings and the “war on drugs.”
States with strong economic and political ties to the Philippines, especially the United States and China, must increase diplomacy aimed at ending extrajudicial killings.