The killing machine that is the “drug war” was unleashed by Rodrigo Duterte as soon as he came to power as President since 3 years ago. It has claimed the lives of more than 25,000 mostly poor Filipinos. And there is no let-up, as Duterte promised in last year’s State of the Nation Address that his campaign would remain “relentless as on the day it began.” No wonder, the mayhem now spirals out of the slums of Metro Manila to other populous areas, such as Cebu City in central Philippines, and Bulacan in Central Luzon.
Worse, not only do the killings continue, the perpetrators and their inducers stay unpunished. They are in fact emboldened by the instigations of Duterte, and shielded by his promise of immunity from suit for “doing their jobs.” Thus, no one was surprised that the Department of Justice admitted in August 2017 that it was only able to investigate 71 cases, and, of this number, only 19 reached the courts for prosecution. The respected organization of human rights lawyers, the Free Legal Assistance Group, observed from the initial batch of cases that they reviewed last April that documents showed a lack of genuine effort to investigate, particularly on the matter of identifying and arresting the assailants.
This reign of impunity has engendered an environment where lives have become cheap and liberties have become disposable. Press freedom is under serious threat, as Duterte endlessly attacks major media firms. Civic spaces for dialogue and positive engagement have dangerously narrowed, as we witness a similar spate of killings, arrests, and harassments of human rights defenders, priests, journalists, lawyers, and even judges.
Even worse, Filipinos cannot rely on any effective system of checks and balance and of accountability in their own government. Congress and the judiciary have largely become subservient to Duterte. No credible congressional investigation has ever been concluded to look into the killings and rights abuses. In joint sessions, Congress has even uniformly rubber-stamped Duterte’s declaration of martial law over a third of the Philippines in Mindanao. As for the judiciary, the Supreme Court likewise practically functions as a validator of Duterte’s agenda, as shown in such controversial decisions that allowed a hero’s burial for the dictator Marcos, the politically charged ouster of its own Chief Justice, and the confirmation of a patently dubious charge against me, an incumbent senator who has been staunchly opposing Duterte’s drug war killings and anti-human rights and anti-democracy policies.
Worse still, not only is the killing machine on a rampage, proceeding resolutely with near-zero accountability, it is even being praised by other governments. The presidents of neighboring Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh commended Duterte’s “drug war” despite the discouraging words from the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner on Human Rights.
So, what has been done so far? Quite a lot, but not enough.
There have been calls for the stoppage of the “drug war” and the killings from all over. In September 2017, 39 member states of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), led by Iceland, expressed serious concerns. In 2017 and 2018, the European Parliament voiced out its growing alarm. In its 2019 report, the US State Department labelled extrajudicial killings (EJKs) as the “chief human rights concern” in the country.
But why do the killings continue? It is simply because no one is actually stopping them. There has been no political, moral, and legal compulsion to halt the bloodbath. Domestically, the Philippine legal system is largely unreliable to expect the arrest, investigation, and prosecution of those behind the EJKs. Congress cannot be depended upon to conduct credible probes, as what happened in the short-lived investigation that I led at the Senate in 2016, which resulted in my removal as committee chair and my eventual arrest and continued detention up to now. In the international front, we are still waiting for further development in the International Criminal Court (ICC) cases, and for any concrete intervention from the UN.
I have been urging for the establishment of a UN-sanctioned independent investigation in my messages for the International Human Rights Day in 2017 and 2018, and in my letters last September and this July to the UNHRC members. I have pointed out the absence of legal remedies in our local justice system, as cogently shown in the lack of serious investigation. Any avenue for such a process has been effectively blocked, or simply met with indifference from relevant government authorities in the Philippines.
We all know as it is settled that states have the duty to investigate EJKs. While the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does not explicitly obligate a State, the Human Rights Committee explains that such a duty is traceable from the general obligation to respect and guarantee human rights, as provided in Article 2 (1) of the ICCPR.
The lack of any serious domestic investigation makes the Philippine government in a clear breach of its duty under international law. A UNHRC-led commission of inquiry has therefore become paramount, both as a measure of justice to the Filipino people whose access to legal remedies have been denied locally, and as tool of necessity to prove that resort to UN mechanisms and processes remains viable for our people, given the Philippines’ pullout from the ICC.
A UN-led investigation can be that much-needed legal, political, and moral instrument. What best deters crime is the certainty, swiftness, and thoroughness of the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of wrongdoers. This is proven by all reputable studies in criminology and criminal justice.
If we can have a dependable system of justice – one that seamlessly integrates mechanisms of prompt and credible investigation and prosecution – we can be assured that criminals and potential felons, however high and mighty they may be, can be hindered and restrained. A counter-culture built around the psychology that “crime does not pay” will ultimately help our people in developing a renewed confidence in our institutions and processes, and a regained optimism for democracy and rule of law. – Rappler.com
Senator Leila de Lima, a fierce Duterte critic, has been detained in a facility at the Philippine National Police headquarters for more than two years over what she calls trumped-up drug charges. She is a former justice secretary and chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights.