HRW: Drug war, attacks vs critics 'deepened' rights crisis in Philippines

Gaea Katreena Cabico - Philstar.com
HRW: Drug war, attacks vs critics 'deepened' rights crisis in Philippines
President Rodrigo Duterte arrives at the venue of the Joint Armed Forces of the Philippines-Philippine National Police Command Conference inside the Malacañan Palace on January 15, 2019
Presidential Photo / Albert Alcain

MANILA, Philippines — The human rights crisis in the Philippines “deepened” during President Rodrigo Duterte’s second year in office as his administration continued the bloody anti-drugs crackdown and escalated attacks against critics, a New York-based watchdog said.

In its annual report released late Thursday, Human Rights Watch noted that the government’s war on drugs had expanded to areas outside the capital while moves to silence its critics had intensified in 2018.

“President Duterte has used the killing of thousands of largely poor drug suspects as a tool to bolster his popularity. He’s also targeting anyone who might undermine that popularity, from outspoken senators to journalists documenting his abuses,” Brad Adams, HRW Asia director, said.

RELATED: 98% of drug operations compliant with human rights standards, PNP chief Albayalde says

The government’s tally as of November 2018 acknowledged the deaths of 5,050 "drug personalities" during anti-drug operations. Although rights groups in the Philippines and abroad assert that police and alleged police agents have killed thousands more.

Duterte’s second year in office also saw him and his men stepping up their attacks against activist groups, the Catholic Church, opposition politicians and the media.

HRW noted the continued detention of Sen. Leila De Lima over drug-related charges, the ouster of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, the revocation of amnesty given to Sen. Antonio Trillanes, the charges filed against news outlet Rappler, the criticisms against the Church, and the vilification of human rights and activist groups.

RELATED: Rappler's Ressa among journalists named TIME Person of the Year

Prior to the release of the HRW report, human rights group Front Line Defenders, which focuses on threats to rights advocates and workers, said in its annual world analysis that the Philippines "remains an extremely dangerous working environment for defenders of land, indigenous peoples and environmental rights." It said that at least 39 rights defenders were killed in the Philippines in 2018.

In December, Salvador Panelo, the current presidential spokesperson, claimed that "organizations presenting themselves as so-called human rights defenders never had it so good under the Duterte administration."

Human Rights Watch also noted the Department of Justice's petition to declare the Communist Party of the Philippines and New People's Army as terrorist groups. The petition included the names of more than 600 people, including the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, as alleged terrorists.

"That action put those individuals at risk of extrajudicial execution," HRW pointed out. 

The DOJ filed an amended petition after the judge cleared four people of involvement in the communist movement. The new petition contains just eight names.

RELATED: Rights defender on gov't terror list gets UN award

'Vilification' of rights defenders

HRW also took note of a claim by former presidential presidential spokesman Harry Roque — a lawyer and former human rights advocate — that "some human rights groups have become unwitting tools of drug lords to hinder the strides made by the administration." 

The claim, which Roque did not substantiate, were similar to those made by Alan Peter Cayetano, Foreign Affairs secretary at the time, "equating efforts of some unnamed human rights organizations to stop Duterte’s murderous 'war on drugs' with 'being used by drug lords.'," HRW said.

Duterte has also frequently criticized human rights defenders and the concept of human rights, saying in his 2018 State of the Nation Address that "your concern is human rights, mine is human lives."

The Commission on Human Rights, which has also been the target of his tirades, responded: "The protection and promotion of human rights is a fight for the preservation of a dignified human life for all. This demonstrates that there is in fact no distinction between human rights and human lives."

Human Rights Watch also mentioned the country’s withdrawal of its ratification from the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court following the announcement of the tribunal’s prosecutor that she would open a preliminary examination into the alleged drug war killings.

“President Duterte has provided no indication of any letup in his murderous drug war. Foreign donors should support efforts by Philippine institutions, groups and the media who are pressing the government to stop the killings and bring those responsible to justice,” Adams said.

Rare victories

The annual report also noted the two “rare triumphs” of accountability in the Philippines last year.

HRW cited the conviction of the killers of 17-year-old Kian Loyd Delos Santos, whose death sparked massive outrage against the government’s ferocious campaign against illegal drugs. The guilty verdict given to the three Caloocan cops marked the first conviction of police officers in the course of war on drugs.

The rights group also mentioned the conviction of retired Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan and two others for the 2006 kidnapping and illegal detention of UP students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan in 2006.

“In some ways this is a dark time for human rights. Yet while autocrats and rights abusers may capture the headlines, the defenders of human rights, democracy and the rule of law are also gaining strength,” HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said.





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