Scathing Report on Child Victims of Filipino Drug War

Human Rights Watch says children of murdered victims of drug war face poverty, trauma

Children are the collateral damage of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous drug war, according to a searing 48-page report released today (May 27) by the New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch.

While dozens of children under the age of 18 have been shot either because they were targeted or shot inadvertently, the lives of hundreds more have been blighted because their parents or siblings have been killed and their support systems have been destroyed. While the daily number of killings has declined somewhat since the carnage of the first year of the campaign, frequent killings still occur, according to the report. 

In an effort to justify the drug war, which international health officials say doesn’t work, Duterte has jailed respected political opponents, threatened newspapers and websites, engineered the blackout of the country’s biggest broadcast network. He has accused Catholic Church officials of sedition and looks likely to withdraw the Status of Forces Agreement that governs US forces on Philippine soil, which, if it goes through, means the end of the presence of US troops in the country.

In the early stages of the campaign, killings were concentrated in the cities comprising the sprawling Metro Manila area, with its vast impoverished neighborhoods where the drug raids usually occur. However, more recently, the violence has expanded to adjacent provinces such as Laguna, Cavite, and Bulacan. The killings have also worsened in other urban areas, particularly in the central Philippine province of Cebu, according to the report.

Produced by researcher Carlos Conde with backup from other HRW officials, the HRW report paints a picture of a police force and its vigilante allies who are completely out of control. While 5,601 people were killed in raids when they supposedly resisted arrest or fought back, there is no indication that any police were killed or even wounded in the raids, raising suspicions that most of the victims were either ambushed or assassinated. HRW based the report on interviews with 49 people carried out between March 2018 and February 2020 in Manila, Caloocan City, Quezon City, Cebu City, General Santos City, and Quezon province.

The interviews included 10 children, 23 parents, relatives, or guardians and 16 individuals from NGOs and government offices to obtain information on 23 deaths in which the victim of a “drug war” killing left behind children. Human Rights Watch focused on incidents in which a child dependent was left behind and benefited from the assistance of community organizations working with children.

At least 101 children and youth were killed by anti-drug forces from July 2016 through December 2018, both targeted and killed as bystanders. More deaths of children have been reported in the media in 2019 and 2020. The national Commission on Human Rights and domestic human rights groups believe many thousands more – estimated at more than 27,000 – have been killed by the police, agents of the police, or unidentified assailants in addition to the 5,000-plus killed by police.

“The overwhelming majority of these killings have not been properly investigated,” according to HRW. Just 76 deaths have led to investigations, with only 33 resulting in court cases and five were pending before the Office of the Prosecutor, while the prosecutor dismissed half – 38 cases. At the time of writing, only one case – the killing of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos by three police officers in August 2017, which happened to be captured on video – has resulted in a trial and conviction.

In many of the raids, according to the HRW probe, children witnessed the killing of a parent, or were present while their parent was dragged away and shot. Many have been traumatized after witnessing the killing of their loved ones. Some have had to either go into hiding or relocate because they and their family members feared for their lives. Children have had to stop going to school because they no longer had enough money for transportation, food, and school supplies.

There are no support services for the orphaned, bereaved, impoverished or endangered. Duterte’s government leaves these children at the mercy of the very forces that drove their dead and murdered parents to poverty or drugs, if indeed they were on drugs. It is difficult to know, since none of the dead were given the opportunity to present a defense before they were murdered.

Indeed, “Many children are left with no choice but to work, and some end up homeless and living in the streets, further exposing themselves to danger, violence, and criminal activity,” according to the report.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development, the main government agency responsible for the welfare of children, has no programs directly aimed at addressing the needs of children affected by the drug war. Assistance is pretty much limited to cash grants for burials or conditional cash transfers.

Families have been justifiably wary about approaching the government for help, given the police and other government officials are likely responsible for the losses they have suffered. That leaves the children and their families left with only programs supported by civic and nongovernmental groups, particularly those from the church

“In some communities where violence is frequent, parish priests and lay workers have been leading the effort to help by providing psycho-social (mental health) support, economic assistance, support for children to attend school, and help in finding and supporting livelihoods for affected families,” the report said. “But as the killings continue, such voluntary efforts have been overwhelmed and are insufficient to address the needs of affected children.”

Human Rights Watch called on the government to end the anti-drug campaign and investigate and prosecute those responsible for killings and other human rights violations. It called for the United Nations Human Rights Council to establish an independent international investigative mechanism into extrajudicial killings and other violations committed since Duterte implemented the drug war in June 2016.

Government agencies, the report said, “should address the dire needs of children whose breadwinner has been killed, especially those living in impoverished communities across the Philippines where the killings typically take place, and ensure the government adopts measures to protect affected children from abuse.”

The administration itself has resisted calls for accountability. As the report notes, Duterte has vilified those who criticized the drug war, including those from international agencies and foreign countries. 

His government attacked then-United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein for criticizing the attacks on critics and Duterte himself threatened to slap Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, for commenting on the killings. 

In March 2018, Duterte ordered the withdrawal of the country from the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court after the court’s Office of the Prosecutor announced that it would launch a preliminary examination of the complaints filed against Duterte. In June 2019, the government launched a sustained disinformation campaign against UN Human Rights Council members countries that were considering whether to pass a resolution critical of the human rights situation in the Philippines.

Domestic civil society organizations and human rights defenders have likewise been targeted with threats by President Duterte, police, and other public officials. Critics of the government have been accused of supporting communist rebels, an allegation that can prove fatal in the Philippines because of military, police, and vigilante violence. 

In some cases, the government has brought inflammatory charges against activist groups, alleging illegal possession of firearms, for example, in actions apparently designed to harass, intimidate, and ultimately silence them. The government’s Securities and Exchange Commission issued a memorandum in November 2018 tightening regulations on NGOs who receive funding from foreign governments or entities, an attempt to obstruct funding to organizations critical of the Duterte administration.

The administration has also targeted the political opposition and journalists who have looked at the record closely and argued that the drug campaign has produced little if any lasting effect on drug use. Experience indicates that the incidence of drug use is likely to return to trend after the campaign is over, as it has in other countries such as Thailand after similar murderous campaigns.