President Rodrigo Duterte has plunged the Philippines into its worst human rights crisis since the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and 1980s. His “war on drugs,” launched after he took office in June 2016, has claimed an estimated 12,000 lives of primarily poor urban dwellers, including children.
Duterte has vowed to continue the abusive anti-drug campaign until his term ends in 2022. Throughout 2017 and the latter part of 2016, he engaged in harassment and intimidation of individuals and agencies tasked with accountability—including United Nations officials.
Duterte’s most prominent critic, Senator Leila de Lima, remained in detention on politically motivated drug charges. Pro-Duterte lawmakers in 2017 sought to eliminate budgetary funding for the official Commission on Human Rights as apparent retaliation for its efforts to probe the anti-drug campaign. In the face of mounting international criticism, the Duterte government has adopted a tactic of denying as “alternative facts” well-substantiated reports by human rights and media organizations of high death tolls linked to the “drug war.”
Violation of children’s rights, attacks on journalists and media, and government policy failures contributing to the country’s worsening HIV epidemic persisted in 2017.
The Duterte administration’s “war on drugs” has resulted in the deaths of thousands of mostly poor Filipinos. Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) data indicates that police operations resulted in the deaths of 3,906 suspected drug users and dealers from July 1, 2016, to September 26, 2017. But unidentified gunmen have killed thousands more, bringing the total death toll to more than 12,000, according to credible media reports.
The government has frustrated efforts by media and other independent observers to maintain a verifiable and transparent tally of such deaths by issuing contradictory data. In August, the official Commission on Human Rights stated that the “[a]ctual number [of drug war killings] is certainly higher than what is suggested” by police.
A Human Rights Watch investigation found that the Philippine National Police and its agents have repeatedly carried out extrajudicial killings of drug suspects, and then falsely claimed self-defense. Police have planted guns, spent ammunition, and drug packets on victims’ bodies to implicate them in drug activities. Masked gunmen taking part in killings appeared to be working closely with police, casting doubt on government claims that most killings have been committed by vigilantes or rival drug gangs.
No one has been meaningfully investigated, let alone prosecuted, for any of the “drug war” killings. Instead, Duterte has pledged to pardon policemen implicated in killings. In October, responding to a public outcry against killings notably committed against children, Duterte removed police from anti-drug operations, assigning the PDEA as the main agency to carry out the drug war.
However, journalists who closely cover the anti-drug campaign say that although the killings by uniformed police personnel have declined since that time, summary killings by “vigilantes” have continued uninterrupted. On November 22, Duterte warned of an imminent lifting of the suspension of police anti-drug operations, raising the likelihood of more extrajudicial executions by police and their agents.
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