By: Our Correspondent

Spurred by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloodthirsty endorsement of extrajudicial murders, killings are continuing even as the United Nations readies a human rights investigation sponsored by Iceland into the killings.

Duterte, however, remains defiant. He has pledged to continue his war against drugs in his final three years in office despite international calls for a probe into the rising death toll.

“Do not destroy my country for the three years that I am still here,” Duterte said in a speech in Leyte in the central Philippines on July 5. “Do not produce drugs for our children to eat and go crazy. I will really kill you.”

Philippine police say 6,600 people have died at the hands of police and vigilantes, a fraction of the 27,000 estimated by rights groups. Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo called the U.N. resolution merely an interference, saying that other nations may have been misled by “false news” on the drug war. The deaths, Panelo said, are mainly due to suspects who resist arrest, which rights groups and others brand as falsehoods.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. tweeted that “If the Iceland resolution wins that means bonuses for everyone who worked for it – from the drug cartels,” spurring an outraged response from Human Rights Watch that the statement by the Philippines’ top diplomat “shows the desperation of the Philippine government to frustrate accountability for its atrocious ‘drug war.’ Sowing lies and disinformation is part of the government’s aggressive and deceitful  campaign to avoid being scrutinized for the human rights violations in the Philippines.”

Demoralized by decades of street crime and corruption, Filipinos appear to agree with Duterte’s macabre crusade, with public opinion polls in April showing his popularity rating at the highest of his presidency, which began in July 2016, despite the fact that there is little evidence that the killings serve as a lasting deterrent. It is mainly the poor who are dying at the hands of the death squads and the police.

Amnesty International, in a prepared release, said it had identified a new “killing field” ahead of the United Nations vote this week on the mandate to investigate deaths during the country’s brutal three-year drugs war. 

The new Amnesty report, ‘They just kill: Ongoing extrajudicial executions and other violations in the Philippines’ war on drugs’, claims that extrajudicial killings by the police remain rampant.  Amnesty’s investigators say the report hope it will provide crucial evidence to nudge the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva towards passing a resolution that would initiate a year-long investigation in the Philippines by UN special rapporteurs. The vote is expected to take place on Thursday.   

The “scale of abuses reaches the threshold of crimes against humanity,” claims Amnesty, alleging that the police have operated with total impunity as they murder people from poor neighborhoods whose names have appeared on manufactured ‘drug watch lists’ with no legal basis.” 

At the same time, Human Rights Watch’s Philippines researcher Carlos Conde, in an email to Asia Sentinel, said: “The war on drugs and Duterte’s policy of violence energized these killers, that’s for sure.”

In a prepared release, Conde cited the deaths of three people – an activist church worker, a provincial politician and a businessman – who were gunned down in separate attacks on July 7 by unidentified gunmen riding motorcycles. They were Salvador Romano, 42, in Negros Oriental, a central province long wracked by killings over land rights. Romano was attacked as he left a church of the Philippine Independent Church, where he worked as a youth advisor.

Earlier that morning, Wenefredo Olofernes, 52, a well-known member of the Dinagat provincial legislature, was fatally shot once in the head by gunmen while riding his motorcycle home in Surigao City. Assassinations of politicians are common in the Philippines.

The media also reported the killing that day of Arnel Agustin, a businessman from Cagayan province, north of Manila. Gunmen on a motorbike killed him and wounded his wife in their pickup truck.

“The three killings are unrelated, but share the modus operandi of killers commonly referred to in the Philippines as “riding in tandem”: two people riding a motorbike, wearing ski masks or balaclavas, and using a .45 caliber pistol (at least in the shootings of Romano and Agustin). According to the police, about four people are killed this way in the Philippines every day.

These three cases highlight the breakdown in law and order in the Philippines, Conde said. Guns for hire – whether paid hitmen or local government-linked “death squads” – operate knowing that the risk of arrest, let alone successful prosecution, is miniscule.

“It’s no surprise that many of the hired guns are police officers,” he said. “And as killings in the government’s “war on drugs” have expanded and come under increased global scrutiny, the police have outsourced many “drug war” killings. “Riding-in-tandem” killings, and the government’s failure to stop them, are a daily reminder of the need for greater international monitoring.

Conde also pointed to the United Nations Human Rights Council is poised to adopt a resolution on the human rights crisis in the Philippines.

“It may not end the carnage but will put the government on notice that it needs to,” he said.