Although United Nations human rights representatives demand an independent investigation into an ugly record of human rights violations in the Philippines, it is unlikely that the call will have much of an effect on President Rodrigo Duterte, who has ignored all such demands in the past and last year called the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights “empty-headed” and a “son of a whore.”
Nonetheless, said the independent experts, referring to a body made up of 47 UN member states elected by the UN General Assembly, “We have recorded a staggering number of unlawful deaths and police killings in the context of the so-called war on drugs, as well as killings of human rights defenders.”
The president has himself “publicly intimidated human rights defenders, United Nations Special Rapporteurs and even the Supreme Court judges,” the UN officials said in a prepared statement. “He has publicly degraded women through sexist statements and has incited violence against alleged drugs pushers and others. He has also threatened to bomb the schools of the Lumad indigenous peoples on the island of Mindanao.”
Threatened with a move to prosecute him in the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the Philippine government officially withdrew from the court in March. Duterte insulted the court and threatened to arrest Fatou Bensouda, a Gambian lawyer and the court’s chief prosecutor, if she entered the Philippines.
Duterte launched his murderous “war on drugs” shortly after his election in 2016. Although the National Police put the death toll at about 5,000, at least 23,000 deaths have been classified as “homicides under investigation” since the campaign began.
Almost all of those killed by police or murdered by death squads closely tied to the police have been the poor and the powerless. While a handful of government officials and wealthy drug distributors have died in “gun battles,” by and large those smuggling drugs into the country have remained at large, believed protected by police.
Despite repeated calls for the murders to stop, Duterte has met them with insults. He has called former US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis vulgar names and told human rights groups “you are dreaming if you think you can jail me.”
For better or worse, Duterte’s attacks appear to have paid off with the voters, who delivered an overwhelmingly favorable slate of lawmakers he backed in April elections.
Thus it is questionable what, if anything can be done to slow the slaughter. He remains wildly popular with the electorate, with the polling organization Social Weather Stations ranking his approval rating at 66 percent during the first quarter of 2019, matching a previous high in June 2017 with all age groups and genders giving him higher ratings. Given his approval ratings, it is difficult to see what forces could rein him in.
“In the past three years, we have repeatedly brought to the attention of the government cases alleging a range of gross human rights violations, such as extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, including of children, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, trade union and land right activists,” the Office of the High Commissioner said in a prepared news release.
“Those cases also included allegations of arbitrary detention, torture or inhuman or degrading treatment, gender-based violence against women human rights defenders, attacks against the independence of judges and lawyers, freedoms of expression and of assembly, as well as people’s right to food and health. Sadly these cases are just the tip of the iceberg with many more cases being reported regularly.”
Human Rights Watch estimated the number of killings at 27,000, saying: “The killings in the Philippines are ongoing, and President Duterte himself has vowed to continue the brutal campaign. A probe into extrajudicial killings and other violations is long overdue – it is incumbent on Council members and observers to work together at the upcoming 41st session to ensure an investigation is finally put in place.”
The UN council said it is time to take action against sustained attacks on human rights defenders and independent watchdog institutions,” stressing that the alleged perpetrators of the killings are members of the armed forces, paramilitary groups or individuals linked to them.
“Instead of sending a strong message that these killings and harassment are unacceptable, there is a rising rhetoric against independent voices in the country and ongoing intimidation and attacks against voices who are critical of the government, including independent media, human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists,” said the experts.
“The government has shown no indication that they will step up to fulfil their obligation to conduct prompt and full investigations into these cases, and to hold perpetrators accountable in order to do justice for victims and to prevent reoccurrence of violations. There are now thousands of grieving families in the Philippines. We call on the international community to do everything possible to ensure there will be no more.”