Duterte's Drug War and Human Rights in the Philippines and Southeast Asia

Mar 27, 2017

President Duterte has created a human rights calamity, says Phelim Kine of Human Rights Watch. In just over over eight months, 7,000 of the poorest, most marginalized Filipinos have been killed. What's needed is a UN special investigation. Without one, and without sustained exposure of these killings, things are only going to get worse.

DEVIN STEWART: I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Phelim Kine. He is Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch in New York City.

Phelim, thanks for coming today.

PHELIM KINE: Good afternoon. Thanks for having me over.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the opinion at Human Rights Watch about human rights in Southeast Asia, which is your area of the world? What's the big picture?

PHELIM KINE: Generally, things are getting worse in many countries where you have dictatorships, such as Cambodia's—Hun Sen's—dictatorship, which is strengthening; you have a military dictatorship in Thailand; you have an erosion in religious freedom in places like Indonesia. So in a lot of places things are getting worse, particularly for vulnerable minorities, whether they're ethnic minorities or religious minorities.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there some sense of what's causing the worsening of the situation?

PHELIM KINE: I think it's part of what we're seeing globally in the sense that there is a move toward intolerance, and there is a greater expression of intolerance, discriminatory nativist sentiment. You see that, of course, in Burma where the native Burmese, the Burmans, are discriminating against, in quite vicious ways, the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority. So this is part of a wider trend that we're seeing.

DEVIN STEWART: This nativism, this kind of clinging to a sense of nation or belonging with the in-group, what is driving that? Is it economic uncertainty? Is it the exposure to images on the Internet? What is it exactly?

PHELIM KINE: I think it's all of the above. I think there is also a sense—you see this in the United States, but you see this in Southeast Asia where there has been meteoric economic development over the past 30-40 years where a large swath of the population feel that they have been left behind by economic development, that the promised "trickle down" really hasn't happened. So people are looking for simple solutions to very complex problems. And when those solutions are presented in terms of discrimination or elimination of minorities, whether they are religious or ethnic in terms, that's where you start to have these horrific human rights abuses occurring.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about human rights in the Philippines. Human Rights Watch has just put out a new report called "'License to Kill': Philippine Police Killings in Duterte's 'War on Drugs'." Quite a title.

What is this report saying? What are the main takeaways?

PHELIM KINE: Devin, the bottom line is what has been unfolding in the Philippines since June 30, 2016, when President Duterte took office, has been nothing less than a human rights calamity. He has delivered on his electoral campaign promises of mass extrajudicial violence as a "crime solution." He has delivered on those promises with a vengeance.

What does that mean? In just over eight months, 7,000 Filipinos have been killed. We're talking some of the poorest, most marginalized citizens of the Philippines, the residents of urban slums, who have been shot, stabbed, thrown to the side of the road by either police or "unidentified gunmen." The government, rather than addressing this as a national emergency and seeking to protect these citizens, has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for this killing and has encouraged it to continue.

DEVIN STEWART: What is behind the killings? What is Duterte trying to do here?

PHELIM KINE: What President Duterte has done is he has declared that the Philippines is in the grip of a "drug emergency." This is an emergency that he has created out of whole cloth.

Like any other country in the world, whether it's the United States, Canada, or Finland, the Philippines has a problem with drugs. But if you take a look at the drug of choice and the drug which the people are being targeted as suspected users and dealers, it is methamphetamine. If you look at the numbers, the percentage of the population that uses methamphetamine in the Philippines is roughly equivalent to that of the United States. It is significantly less than in Australia. This is not something that requires absolutely barbaric extrajudicial killings by the police and these vigilantes.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a sense of what he's really trying to do then? Is he trying to threaten the poor, or is there something sort of unsaid here?

PHELIM KINE: What he has succeeded in doing is creating a problem and then showing the population that he is "doing something about it." In the Philippines, he is a maverick. He is someone who is very different from the traditional political elite. That's one of the reasons why he was elected.

So what he is doing is he is showing through this drug war and through this daily body count that he is taking care of the Philippines and taking care of the concerns of many of the nascent middle class, concerns that people have about security, about poverty, about being left behind, and so he is appealing to that.

DEVIN STEWART: Your report is called "License to Kill," and you mentioned 7,000 killings to date. What are the types of killings there? Are there different types? How do they go about happening?

PHELIM KINE: Sure. So credit where credit is due: "License to kill" is a quote by the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, who has criticized this killing campaign in the Philippines as absolutely unlawful and barbaric.

What we are seeing in the Philippines is two types of killings: killings by police, and killings by these "unidentified gunmen." To date, documented killings that the Philippines National Police provide statistics for indicate that out of those 7,000-odd killings the police have done around 2,500 of them. That is in about eight months. In the first six months of 2016, the Philippine National Police killed 68 people. So you can see there is this almost exponential increase in killings.

The police justify those killings by saying that each and every one of those 2,500 people "fought back." So there is the first thing.

The second category of killings are by what they call "unidentified gunmen," and the police call these "deaths under investigation." These are killings by often masked gunmen who leave their victims by the side of the road. But our research indicates that many of these killings are actually perpetrated with the passive or active complicity of Philippine National Police personnel. Actually this description of "unidentified gunmen" is a legal fiction, a veneer, to cover up unlawful killings by the police.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's took a look at the first category, the ones who are being killed by police. The claim is that they're fighting back and that they have to use deadly force. Have people investigated that claim? How much veracity is there?

PHELIM KINE: Our research in this report that we released on March 2 really puts the lie to that claim by the police. We absolutely trashed this narrative that all those people fought back. What we found in multiple cases is that police killed unarmed drug suspects and later planted both weapons, like handguns, and drugs to justify what they call a "drug killing." This is a pattern that has been repeated and repeated across the Philippines.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you find out that the weapon was planted there?

PHELIM KINE: We did this by interviewing witnesses to these crimes, talking to family members, but also we were able to get access to the actual police reports, what they call the "spot initial reports" of these killings. These spot initial reports are an absolute travesty in terms of representing what actually happened. They don't bear any type of relevance or relation to truth to what actually happened. So it indicates that the police are really just checking a box while undertaking summary extrajudicial killings at the bidding of President Duterte. And they're doing so with impunity.

The Philippines National Police director, General Ronald dela Rosa, has been pressured to launch an impartial independent investigation into these killings. He has resisted and rejected those, saying that such an investigation would "hurt the morale" of the Philippine National Police, while thousands are killed.

DEVIN STEWART: Looking at the second category, I want to call them vigilantes, is that the word?

PHELIM KINE: Vigilantes, unidentified gunmen, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: How does this go about? It sounds like it's under the blessing of the police or at least the state. Can you give us a sense of how this is taking place?

PHELIM KINE: Sure. So the police shrug. They say, "Oh, unidentified gunmen did this. We don't know anything about it." Our research revealed two things. Number one, we found in multiple cases that drug suspects who were arrested publicly, in public view, detained by police, and taken away, their bodies were later found with multiple stab wounds or bullet wounds, and the police attributed those killings to unidentified gunmen, despite the fact that the last time they were seen alive they were in police custody. That's the first thing.

The second thing is, you have to understand the neighborhoods where these are happening. These are happening in Manila's slum areas. These are areas where there's a cop just about every block, particularly with this drug war going on. What we documented is that you have these unidentified men dressed in black, heavily armed, often masked, who are going around breaking down people's doors and executing them in the street while there are police within earshot or often within plain view. It's absolutely unquestionable that these groups, that these individuals, are working with the active complicity of the police, that they are being literally allowed to get away with murder, and quite possibly these are Philippine National Police personnel who just aren't wearing their uniforms.

DEVIN STEWART: If they are un-uniformed police, that would sort of explain their motives. Is there any thinking that maybe they're being paid by the state government or paid by the police like a mercenary force or maybe even gang members? Are there other motivations that could be around?

PHELIM KINE: Human Rights Watch research did not indicate that there was any type of formal payment system for these killings. However, I would add that Amnesty International has done a report on the Philippine drug war killings, and they did determine that in fact policemen are provided a bounty for every killing that they do while they are on duty. So there is evidence out there that suggests that this is a for-profit scheme.

Human Rights Watch has been documenting extrajudicial killings in the Philippines for a long time. This is an old problem that goes back a long way. It points to weak rule of law. It speaks to the proliferation of weaponry in the Philippines in the hands of people who shouldn't have it. What we've documented in other cities is that where local governments have set up "death squads" as a crime solution eventually they metastasize into for-profit contract-killing operations. So our concern is that that is something that very likely might be happening in these cases as well.

What we're warning both the Philippine government and the international community is that once you let death squads off the leash, once people know that they can get away with murder, anybody with a gun and a grudge can kill with impunity, and it's really hard to get those people back on the leash.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about how this is affecting the atmosphere in the Philippines. First of all, are citizens trying to get involved with documenting what's going on here? What's the level of fear of violence?

PHELIM KINE: Devin, it's fair to say that in these urban slum communities which are the epicenter of the killings nothing less than a real state of terror has been imposed for months. One of the challenges that we had as an organization seeking to research and document these killings in a verifiable manner was that people for months were simply too scared to talk to us, and they would say, "I might be next. They know who I am." This was a repeated pattern. So this is a really tough nut to crack when people have justifiable concern that they could be next on some kind of death list.

DEVIN STEWART: Is the average citizen cooperating with documenting what's going on?

PHELIM KINE: That fear continues, but we were able to talk to people who were willing to go on the record about these issues and talk about the killings of their relatives, killings that they often were eyewitnesses to.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the United States' role? Are we complicit in some ways in that we support the Philippine government? Are there other ways in terms of clamping down on funding or other instruments that the United States can do to address this in any way?

PHELIM KINE: The international response to this killing campaign is absolutely essential. You're right in the sense that the United States is one of the Philippines' closest historical allies. There is a long friendship in this relationship.

To the credit of the United States government, to date the government has been responding the right way. By that I mean back in November of last year the State Department canceled a planned sale of several thousand assault rifles to the Philippine National Police on the explicit reason that they were concerned that those guns, that weaponry, would be used to commit human rights abuses. So that is exactly what we're looking for.

Also, a State Department agency, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which funds aid development, has suspended some funding to the Philippines government on the explicit reason that they are concerned about the human rights situation in the Philippines. So the United States has been walking the walk on this so far.

What we are asking for is more of that, more sustained pressure, more explicit pressure, but also, governments such as the Japanese government, which to a large extent is cutting a blank check to the Philippines government in terms of aid and investment without saying anything about this killing campaign.

DEVIN STEWART: Is the new administration in the United States carrying on the same policies as the previous administration, or do you anticipate some change of approach?

PHELIM KINE: There is no sign of any change in policy. So what we're doing now is basically a watching-and-waiting phase to see how that unfolds.

DEVIN STEWART: Phelim, it's been great speaking with you. Last question is: If these death squads are left alone to operate with impunity, what type of future could the Philippines be facing?

PHELIM KINE: If there is not some type of urgent international response—and when I say "international response," essentially the Philippine National Police and the government of President Rodrigo Duterte have proven themselves to be either unwilling or incapable of addressing this with the level of seriousness that it requires. Instead, they've been enthusiastic cheerleaders for this killing. What it requires is a United Nations special investigation into what's going on. Unless that happens, and unless there is prolonged, sustained exposure of what's going on, things are only going to get worse.

One thing that is worth noting is that when President Duterte comes under criticism about this killing campaign, he often says that things could get worse because he could just declare martial law. This is something that is extremely chilling for Filipinos who lived under the two-decade Marcos dictatorship. The fact that he is willing to say that with such regularity really sends some chills up people's spines, because that would make things immeasurably worse.

DEVIN STEWART: Phelim Kine from Human Rights Watch, thank you so much.

PHELIM KINE: Thank you very much.

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