Congress Must Take Immediate Action against Killings Unleashed by Philippines President
By Matthew Wells, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International and co-author of “If You Are Poor, You are Killed”: Extrajudicial Executions in the Philippines’ “War on Drugs”
Last week, I testified before Congress’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission about the human rights disaster unleashed by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called war on drugs. The haunting pictures posted around the hearing room brought me back to Manila and the makeshift homes in densely packed urban neighborhoods where my colleagues and I at Amnesty International had interviewed so many heartbroken families.
In June 2016, Duterte took office, promising to “fatten the fish” in Manila Bay with the bodies of “criminals.” His inflammatory rhetoric, primarily against people who use or sell drugs, quickly became all too real. Thousands of alleged drug offenders were killed during his presidency’s first year, either during police operations or by unknown armed persons, often working for the police.
Every night in the Philippines, bodies end up in hospitals or morgues across the country, riddled with bullet holes. The police claim these people fought back, but consistent witness accounts, autopsy reports, and even police statistics tell a very different story — of police officers busting down doors and killing unarmed people in cold blood.
Amnesty International’s investigation uncovered that police officers have received under-the-table payments for what they call “encounters” in which they kill alleged drug offenders. We also interviewed several paid killers who said their boss is an active duty police officer. They told us there has been an endless demand for their work, all linked to the “drug war.”
What makes this economy of murder even more outrageous is that the victims are overwhelmingly from the poorest segments of Philippine society. Many families we interviewed referred to the “drug war” as a war on the poor.
Despite thousands of killings and a pattern of other human rights violations by the police, there has been scant accountability. No officer is known to have been convicted in relation to deaths during anti-drug operations. In July, the police force reinstated 19 officers who, according to investigations by the Philippine Senate and the National Bureau of Investigation, are implicated in a premeditated killing last year of a jailed mayor. The reinstatement follows months of Duterte saying he would pardon these officers if convicted, along with any other officer convicted of a crime committed in the line of duty.
As a result, police officers have been emboldened to continue killing alleged drug offenders and to make a mockery of the justice system through planting “evidence” and falsifying police reports. Even when families doggedly pursue a case, they face obstacle after obstacle, including reprisals. I interviewed the parents of 8-year-old San Niño Batucan, four days after his death in December 2016. San Niño was lying down watching television when shooters fired at an alleged drug financier and missed; the bullet went through the Batucan’s wooden shack and hit San Niño in the stomach, causing him to die several hours later as his father Wilson tried frantically to bring him to a hospital. The family believed the police were involved in the operation, yet the authorities failed to undertake a credible investigation. Instead, after months of Wilson being outspoken about his son’s killing, Wilson himself was gunned down outside his home in March 2017.
The United States is one of the Philippines’ oldest and most important allies, giving Congress and the White House a unique position of influence. In his powerful opening remarks to the congressional hearing, Rep. McGovern (D-MA), the Co-Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, said “the United States government cannot afford any degree of complicity with the kind of human rights violations that are occurring” in the Philippines.
To that end, I told the Commission that Congress should, through statements and legislation, pressure the Philippine authorities to reorient their drug policies towards a model based on the protection of health and human rights, rather than a punitive approach that tries hopelessly and devastatingly to kill the problem away. In particular, Congress should ensure that none of its assistance winds up supporting human rights violations in the “war on drugs.” Future assistance to the Philippine National Police in particular should be tied to benchmarks related to ending the killings and ensuring justice.
Congress should likewise support the efforts of Philippine human rights defenders. In the face of harassment and threats, Philippine civil society is documenting the atrocities linked to the “drug war,” using innovative legal strategies to push for change, and promoting a public health approach. Financial support from Congress would amplify their impact.
In May, Senators Rubio (R-FL) and Cardin (D-MD) introduced the Philippines Human Rights Accountability and Counternarcotics Act of 2017 (S.1055). That bill restricts U.S. exports to the Philippine National Police until it demonstrates it has taken measures “to prevent recurrent human rights abuses.” The bill also allocates up to $25 million to support human rights defenders, victims of human rights violations, and a public health approach.
The House of Representatives should look to build on these provisions in introducing companion legislation. The passage of a bipartisan bill would send a powerful message to Duterte’s government that the world will not sit idly by as the killings and impunity continue.