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UN probe

The United Nations has an office and a resident representative in the Philippines so it surely has gathered some information on killings related to President Duterte’s war on drugs.

In our society, the information gathered through unofficial channels can be more reliable than what is provided by the government in a formal fact-finding mission. For several months now, certain human rights and lawyers’ groups have been documenting the drug killings and collecting material evidence for future use in an investigation. A day of reckoning will come, as sure as night turns into day, as the cliché goes; no one stays in power forever. 

The UN, however, can be expected to prefer an official investigation, with the government in the subject state cooperating.

If the UN wants to speed things up, it may have to compromise with the Duterte government, whose top diplomat assured the UN chief last week that the Philippines would welcome any independent probe by an unbiased individual or UN team. This means anyone but the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, whom Duterte believes has already prejudged the situation.   

We’ve seen how Duterte behaves when he dislikes a person. Consider his actions and statements on Barack Obama and the previous US ambassador posted in Manila. With Obama out, the Duterte government is now preparing to welcome US President Donald Trump to Manila next month. Duterte has said he wants to be on friendlier terms with Washington.

 Callamard may have to step aside and give way to someone else if the UN Human Rights Council wants to get this probe going ASAP. There are reports that the council’s special rapporteur on the right to health, Dainius Puras of Lithuania, is open to conducting the probe. Maybe he can emphasize the value of treating the drug menace partly as a public health problem.

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 In 2007, the UN sent a special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or special executions, Philip Alston, to the country. He concluded that the Armed Forces of the Philippines was in a “state of almost total denial” regarding EJKs.

 The AFP denied engaging in summary executions, attributing the deaths of left-leaning activists and suspected communist rebels to legitimate counterinsurgency operations and the insurgents’ internal purge. Alston also slammed human rights violations committed by the rebels, but this was eclipsed by his condemnation of the AFP.

After the statements were issued, Alston left Manila, the story disappeared from the news, and it was back to business as usual in our country.

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This time, the UN probe is seen to be directed not at the AFP but the Philippine National Police and Duterte himself.

Also, the suspected EJK victims are not communist rebels or sympathizers, which allowed the AFP to describe them as combatant enemies of the state, but thousands of civilians including over 50 teenagers.

And unlike Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who was president when Alston came visiting, Duterte is facing a serious effort by his opponents to hale him before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.

In recent weeks there has been talk that the ICC is set to initiate an investigation into the complaint filed by the lawyer of self-confessed hit man Edgar Matobato, who claims to be a former member of the Davao death squad.

This was relayed to me by several non-partisan persons who do not engage in rumor-mongering and who have some capability to filter out fake news. I asked them how this could be possible for the ICC when there are still mechanisms available in the Philippines for curbing human rights abuses.

Their guess was that recent developments had given the impression that the capability and willingness of the state to stop the abuses had been compromised.

But perhaps these have been overtaken by other developments, including the about-face of the Palace rubberstamp Congress on the 2018 budget of the Commission on Human Rights and the sacking of the entire Caloocan police force. 

In case you haven’t noticed, there have also been significantly fewer cases of drug killings since the executions of Kian Loyd delos Santos, Carl Angelo Arnaiz and Reynaldo de Guzman.

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If the government acknowledges that concerns about the conduct of the drug war are reasonable, it can have a better chance of explaining why this war tends to be dirty and violent.

It can successfully explain the seriousness of the drug menace in our country, and how it is undermining democratic processes and fueling Islamist terrorism. The threat posed by the Islamic State is something understood well by those 39 nations that signed the expression of concern at the UN in Geneva.

There is also credible intel, picked up even by certain foreign governments, that the IS-inspired Mautes, supported by some local politicians in Mindanao, are truly raising funds through drug deals to finance their terrorism. Drug money, after all, is big money, and drug trafficking is less messy than kidnapping for ransom, as the local protectors of the Abu Sayyaf are starting to find out.

The Philippine government can actually use help from those 39 states in fighting drug trafficking and the IS threat. Some of them, including the United States and Australia, are already providing assistance.

Because of his propensity for talking off the cuff, Duterte has given the impression that he has given his anti-drug cops blanket authority to do whatever they want to neutralize drug personalities. A system of reward and punishment, backed by Duterte’s numerous pronouncements that no cop will ever go to jail for drug kills, no doubt encouraged those overnight mass executions of dozens of drug suspects.

Duterte has only belatedly admitted that there are abusive cops – and in fact that there are about 9,000 cops involved in drug deals – and he’s not going to protect them.

The Duterte administration may burnish its position before the UN if the anti-drug police would arrest more big fish – and not just narco politicians long linked to organized crime such as the Parojinogs. A unit in a posh condominium in eastern Metro Manila, for example, is gaining notoriety for operating as a drug den and playground of an arrogant congressman believed to be using drugs since his youth. And there are people who will believe the drug war is not selective only if the government will stop mollycoddling Duterte supporter Peter Lim, confirmed by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency to be the same man on its top five most wanted list. Lim of course denies any drug links.

Several administration officials, if not Duterte himself, must be genuinely concerned about the Philippines’ human rights record before the international community. At this point, there are still measures that can be undertaken to make their position defensible.

 

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