Philippines: UN investigation urgently needed into the Duterte administration’s murderous ‘war on drugs’

Extrajudicial executions by police remain rampant
Scale of abuses reaches the threshold of crimes against humanity

The wave of police killings triggered by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous anti-drugs campaign continues to rage on, destroying lives and devastating communities, a report by Amnesty International reveals today. The UN must immediately open an investigation into gross human rights violations and possible crimes against humanity committed as part of the “war on drugs.”
The new report, ‘They just kill’: Ongoing extrajudicial executions and other violations in the Philippines’ ‘war on drugs,’ shows police operating with total impunity as they murder people from poor neighbourhoods whose names appear on manufactured “drug watch lists” established outside of any legal process.
“Three years on, President Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ continues to be nothing but a large-scale murdering enterprise for which the poor continue to pay the highest price,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia.
“It is time for the United Nations, starting with its Human Rights Council, to act decisively to hold President Duterte and his government accountable.”
The Philippine government has acknowledged at least 6,600 killings at the hands of police. Evidence points to many thousands more killed by unknown armed persons with likely links to the police.
Following the transfer of senior police officers from Metro Manila – until then the country’s epicentre of killings – Bulacan province, in Central Luzon, is now the country’s bloodiest killing field.
President Duterte has repeatedly defended his administration’s “war on drugs,” saying people involved in drugs are “criminals” and that their killing is “justifiable.”
In its investigation, Amnesty International identified 20 cases in which 27 people were killed, many of which appear to be extrajudicial executions. These killings took place across Bulacan province between May 2018 and April 2019. In total, the organisation carried out interviews with 58 people, including witnesses of extrajudicial executions, families of victims, local officials and human rights activists, among others.
The report builds on a previous Amnesty International investigation, whose results were published in January 2017, that showed how the police had systematically targeted mostly poor and defenceless people across the country while planting “evidence,” recruiting paid killers, stealing from the people they kill, and fabricating official incident reports.
“It is not safe to be poor in President Duterte’s Philippines,” said Nicholas Bequelin. “All it takes to be murdered is an unproven accusation that someone uses, buys, or sells drugs. Everywhere we went to investigate drug-related killings ordinary people were terrified. Fear has now spread deep into the social fabric of society.”
Many killings, one pattern
In every police operation Amnesty International examined, police cited the same “buy-bust” justification: an undercover drug sting where suspects were armed and fought back, “prompting” the use of lethal force.
Families and witnesses repeatedly refuted police accounts. In some cases the victim never owned a gun or was too poor to buy one, family members said. In other cases, victims of drug-related killings were first reported as missing, only to be suddenly and systematically classified by the police as “buy-bust” kills once the body was discovered.
A Filipino forensic expert interviewed by Amnesty International said that police reports of “buy-bust” operations she had examined did not meet the minimum standards of plausibility: “It’s so consistent, it’s a script. In fact, when you see the report, it looks like a template.”
In one case, police claimed Jovan Magtanong, a 30-year-old father of three, fired at them, and that they recovered a .38 calibre gun and sachets of illicit drugs from the scene of the incident. Witnesses said he was sleeping alongside his children when officers knocked on his house door asking for another man. Jovan’s family said he did not own a gun and had not used drugs for over a year.
“They killed him like an animal,” a family member told Amnesty International.
When ‘drug watch lists’ become kill lists
In the majority of cases reviewed by Amnesty, those killed were said to have been on so-called “drug watch lists” compiled by the authorities outside of any legal process.
These lists effectively serve as guides for the police of people to arrest or kill. Local officials down to the neighbourhood (barangay) level are pressured to show results by collecting the names of so-called “users,” “pushers,” “financiers,” and “protectors” in their area. Amnesty International views these lists as unreliable, illegitimate, and unjustifiable. They provide further evidence of the government’s targeting of poor and marginalised communities.
Amnesty International researchers interviewed local human rights investigators, barangay personnel, and others, who confirmed that there is no way to get de-listed, creating a system of perpetual surveillance and risk.
“The Duterte administration has created a deadly numbers game where officials must manufacture lists and monitor them, regardless of whether the individuals on it actually use or sell drugs. This insatiable and vicious system rewards blind compliance and murder,” said Nicholas Bequelin.
Police responsibility
The sharp rise in unlawful killings in Bulacan follows personnel transfers in the upper ranks of the police. Commanders who previously held posts in Metro Manila – formerly the deadliest region for drug-related killings – have been promoted to senior roles in Bulacan and the wider Central Luzon region.
One of them is provincial director Senior Superintendent Chito Bersaluna, the police chief for Caloocan City at the time of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos in August 2017.
Following global media attention to the case, Bersaluna was put on “administrative leave.” No charges were filed against him but three junior officers under his command were prosecuted, and ultimately convicted and sentenced.
“The transfer of senior police officials to regions where killings then surged is an alarming indicator of impunity,” said Nicholas Bequelin. “The Duterte administration’s continuing efforts to deny and deflect responsibility are nothing short of mendacious.”
Time for a UN investigation
With the single exception of the police officers convicted for the killing of Kian delos Santos, the Philippine authorities have failed to credibly investigate and prosecute those responsible for unlawful killings and extrajudicial executions in anti-drug operations.
Amnesty International’s new report contributes to a growing volume of evidence that human rights violations committed in the Philippines’ murderous “war on drugs” constitute crimes against humanity.
The Philippine government has to date evaded all attempts to scrutinise human rights violations committed in the context of its widely-criticized “war on drugs.” Although the International Criminal Court launched a preliminary examination into the anti-drug campaign in February 2018, President Duterte quickly announced that the Philippines would pull out of the court’s statute, a withdrawal that came into effect last March.
Families of victims, witnesses, lawyers, religious leaders and others repeatedly expressed their despair at the obstacles stopping them from seeking justice, and the total climate of impunity within the country.
“Every time I see a photo of my son, I feel my heart being pierced,” a mother of a 20-year-old victim told Amnesty International. “He wants me to fight for him, what do I do?”
Amnesty International also found that drug rehabilitation and treatment programmes for people who use drugs remain woefully inadequate. The organisation emphasises that the authorities must ramp up the availability of health and social services to reduce the risks and harms associated with drugs, and end its campaign based on violence and fear.
The organization is calling on the UN Human Rights Council to immediately initiate an independent, impartial and effective investigation into human rights violations in the “war on drugs,” including the commission of crimes under international law.
Likewise, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court must expedite its examination into the situation and open a full and thorough criminal investigation.