(President Rodrigo Duterte gives a thumbs up during a press conference in Davao City, courtesy of Wiki Commons)
Since its independence, the Philippine government has been shadowed by allegations of corruption and wrongdoing at the highest level (BBC, 2018). In June 2016, populist former mayor Rodrigo Duterte was elected president and announced a hard-line crackdown on drugs, whilst also suggesting his intentions to pivot from supporting a US agenda to one more in line with Chinese ideals (BBC, 2018).
In practice, this surfaced through an uncompromising regime, involving thousands of violent executions at the hands of law enforcement, vigilante groups and other unidentified actors. Specifically, critics argue that informal groups are being paid to carry out executions without giving people the right to a fair trial. Human rights groups and the United Nations have condemned the extrajudicial killings, with the UN stating that the campaign amounts to ‘crime under international law’ (UN, 2016).
Moreover, Duterte and his officials have publicly reviled, humiliated, and jailed human rights advocates using the fight against drugs as a pretext. Senator Leila de Lima, the president’s chief critic, has been detained since February 2017 on politically motivated drug charges in apparent retaliation for leading a Senate inquiry into the drug war killings (Human Rights Watch, 2018).
In October 2017, following his first year of presidency, Duterte ordered the police to end all operations in his war on drugs after a 15-month campaign in which thousands were killed by the Philippine National Police. He instead placed the task of continuing the crackdown with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), moving away from street level operations to go after ‘big fish’, referring to higher level criminal networks and suppliers. The PDEA’s staff make up just over 1% of the 160,000-strong national police (The Guardian, 2017). Despite such advancements, the police have continued to conduct raids and extrajudicial killings on suspects, with the New York Times reporting that between December 2017 and February 2018 the Philippine National Police took part in an operation named Double Barrels Reloaded, conducting 3,253 raids, leading to the arrest of an unnamed number of ‘high-value targets’ and the deaths of 46 people (The New York Times, 2018).
Duterte also continues to maintain a hard approach to those opposing the regime and refuses to accept and respond to criticism from the West. He has accused the European Union of interfering in the Philippines’ domestic affairs, and alleged that it sought to have the Philippines removed from the UN (The Guardian, 2017). Likewise, with the UN, in March 2018 Dutere ordered police officers in his country not to cooperate with United Nations human rights investigators and offered a firm warning to those conducting the probe (CNN, 2018).
At the individual level
The exact number of people killed since Duterte’s war on drugs took effect is unknown. The government says fewer than 4,000 suspects have been killed, but in January 2018 Human Rights Watch estimated the figure at more than 12,000, including an estimated 4,000 during operations by the police and the remainder by ‘unidentified gunmen’ (New York Times, 2018; Human Rights Watch, 2018). Moreover, it appears that many of the killings are conducted in a ruthless and unlawful manner, with many of the cases investigated by NGOs and Human Rights Advocates concluding in the assumption that people are being executed with their arms raised and without resisting arrest (Post Magazine, 2018). Aside from those who have been executed by the police force or vigilante groups, prisons in the Philippines are at breaking point, with ABC News stating in September 2017 that since the start of the war on drugs, there has been a 22% increase in the prison population, and that a staggering 94% of people detained in the drug war are currently still behind bars and still waiting for their first day in court (ABC News, 2017).
At the state level
Despite the nature of the reprisals against drug users ordered by Duterte, levels of support for the president initially remained high within the Philippines following his first year of presidency. For instance, in December 2017, Al Jazeera referred to the ‘High approval rating’ of 71% satisfaction given by the local polling agency Social Weather Stations in Manila (Al Jazeera, 2017).
Despite the seemingly positive attitudes towards Duterte and his hard-line methods, as the extra judicial killings continue to take place, support for the president appears to become less prevalent as many are now branding his methods of leadership as a dictatorship. On 30 November 2017, swarms of anti-revolutionary and pro-revolutionary groups clashed in Manila to both protest and support Duterte’s suggestion of establishing a ‘revolutionary government’ in order to fully crackdown on destabilizers’ (GLOBE, 2017). More recently, in February 2018, there were mass protests specifically against the extra judicial killings taking place. Led by Luis Antonio Tagle, the Catholic Cardinal for Manila, thousands conducted a ‘walk for life’ in Manila (Al Jazeera, 2017).
The war on drugs and subsequent extra judicial killings it has fostered has provoked criticisms from the international community. On 8 February 2018, the International Criminal Court announced it was opening a preliminary examination of the situation in the Philippines which will analyse crimes allegedly committed in the context of the ‘war on drugs’ (CNN, 2018). In response, Duterte announced an immediate withdrawal from the ICC, stating how the Hague-based organisation ‘has no jurisdiction nor will it require jurisdiction over him’ (Al Jazeera, 2018). This is typical of Duterte’s response to his critics on an international scale, coinciding with his beliefs that external bodies are interfering in the domestic affairs of the state.
What has the international community done about it?
The United Nations
The United Nations Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council have not issued any resolutions in response to the human rights abuses within the Philippines. However, there have been public statements made by key officials such as Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a Philippine national and UN Special Rapporteur who has expressed concerns regarding the attacks and killing of indigenous Lumad people by the members of the armed forces in Mindanao (Press Release, 2018). In response to Ms. Tauli-Corpuz’s concerns, the Philippine president accused the UN representative of being a member of the armed wing of the Communist party, the New People’s Army (NPA) (The Guardian, 2018; Human Rights Watch, 2018). The most recent public announcement from a United Nations official, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid R’ad Hussein commented that Duterte should seek out a psychological assessment (The Guardian,2018).
The European Union
Upon his appointment to Presidency, Rodrigo Duterte was congratulated by the EU’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, with officials of the EU conveying optimism that the relationship between the EU and the Philippines could prosper under the new administration (Inquirer.net, 2016). Despite such optimisms, as the war on drugs has raged on, the EU has been critical of the extrajudicial killings that have taken place, and has emphasised how human rights have deteriorated since 2016 in the state (Inquirer.net, 2017).
For instance, the European Parliament has expressed numerous concerns and condemned the current situation in the Philippines. In particular, it emphasised its concern about the arrest of President Duterte’s political opponent and human rights advocate, Senator de Lima, who has been arrested and detained on what seem to be entirely fabricated charges (European Parliament, 2017). As a result, the European Parliament is concerned that the President is using the context of the war on drugs in order to isolate and, in most cases, remove political opponents (European Parliament, 2017). Since Senator de Lima’s arrest, member of the Parliament have visited her in jail, and assisted her in petitioning a release. However, the Supreme Court has rejected her request. As a result, the Parliament has called for a joint motion for a resolution against the Philippines in which they have condemned the extrajudicial killings and called on the EU and Human Rights Council to adopt an independent investigation into the unlawful killings and other violations. Furthermore, the motion condemned the President’s rhetoric which often promotes and justifies the unlawful killings (European Parliament, 2017).
Duterte has openly slandered the United States and European Union – both major international development partners – for criticising his relentless war on drugs. Not only has he vocally discredited such criticisms, but has further broken-down relations through refusing financial aid. In October 2017, the Philippine government announced it would not accept new EU grants, worth nearly $300 million (Devex, 2018).
The International Criminal Court (ICC)
Fatou Bensouda opened a preliminary examination into the current situation. The preliminary examination is not an investigation, rather it is an initial step to determine whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation (ICC,2018). The focus of the preliminary examination is the alleged crimes committed by the government since 1 July 2016 in the context of the war on drugs. Since the killings have been committed against the civilian population in a systemic and widespread manner, it falls under the jurisdiction of the ICC. Bensouda has expressed concerns about the killings, and particularly worried high officials of the Philippines appear to condone and justify them (ICC, 2016). In response to the ICC investigation, President Duterte announced the withdrawal of the Philippines from the ICC. A withdrawal from the ICC becomes effective one year after the notice has been deposited to the Secretary-General of the UN. Despite Duterte’s withdrawal, the action will have no impact on the on-going procedures, and the IIC may exercise its jurisdiction over the alleged crime even after the withdrawal becomes effective (ICC, 2018).
Key declarations by the European Union and EU member states
European Union. Office Journal of the European Union. Delegation of the European Union to the Philippines, 28 February 2018. Accessed 25 March 2018.
This document shows that the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (PCA), between the EU and the Philippines is coming into play. The PCA was signed in 2012 and has now been ratified by the Senate of the Philippines on 22 January 2018. This document explains how the new agreement will strengthen the relationship between the European Union and The Philippines, on political, social, and economic issues, by creating an enhanced legal framework.
European Parliament. 2017. Philippines: Concerns About Recent Deterioration of Human Rights Situation. 20th July 2017. Accessed 9th April 2018.
After an EU delegation visited the Philippines, the parliament expressed concern over continued extrajudicial killings in the war on drugs and the possible extension of martial law, as well as draft bills to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9 and to reinstate the death penalty.
European Commission. International Co-Operation and Development. Building partnerships for change in developing countries. Joint statement on the International Day for the elimination of sexual violence in conflict. 19 June 2017. Accessed 28 March 2018.
This joint statement is a general summary for the EU to work towards the emancipation of sexual violence within conflict. The European Commission includes the Philippines in its aims, saying that they are going to assist the traditional justice process to fulfil their aims. In this statement they stress the importance of EU and UN measures particularly on the UN Security Council’s Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security, their Action Plan for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in EU External Relations for the period 2016-2020. The European commission state that they have allocated robust financial support for Member States and grassroots efforts to prevent gender-based violence and support its victims in the European Union, in this statement.
European Parliament. Human Rights: Zimbabwe, Ukrainian Political Prisoners in Russia, and Philippines. 16th March 2017. Accessed 9th April 2018.
The European Parliament calls for the immediate release of Senator Leila M. De Lima, who was detained on 24th February 2017. She is the highest-profile critic of President Duterte’s war on drugs campaign, and as of February 2018 she is still detained without charge. The European Parliament strongly condemn drug trafficking and abuse, however are calling for priorities to be redirected towards trafficking networks and drug barons instead of small-scale consumers.
European Parliament. ‘Joint Motion for a Resolution’. European Parliament. 15 March 2017. Accessed 11 April 2018.
This motion covers the recent situation in the Philippines. It condemns the actions of the Philippine government and President in the unlawful killings of its population. Additionally, it calls for the release of the President’s political opponent, Senator de Lima, who has been arrested and detailed on entirely fabricated charges.
European Parliament Press Releases. 2016. Human Rights: Philippines, Somalia and Zimbabwe. 15th September 2016. Accessed on 9th April 2017.
The European Parliament expresses concern for the “extraordinarily high numbers” of people killed in police operations as part of the war on drugs, and strongly encourage the Philippines government to adopt a policy which is more in line with international obligations and human rights.
European Union External Action. 2016. EU-Philippines Partnership Cooperation Agreement. European Union Strategic Communications, 4th August 2016. Accessed on 28th March 2018.
An agreement to create and preserve strong lines of communication around political, social, economic and transnational matters, and to abide by human rights regulations.
Key declarations by the United Nations
The United Nations Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council have not issued any resolutions in response to the human rights abuses within the Philippines. However, there have been public statements made by key officials such as the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid R’ad Hussein regarding the current situation.
The Guardian. 2018. ‘UN official says Philippine President needs Psychiatric Evaluation’. The Guardian. 9 March 2018. Accessed 22 March 2018.
In reaction to president Duterte’s accusations that UN Special Rapporteur, Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, is, in fact, a communist terrorist, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Hussein stated the Filipino president should seek out a psychiatric evaluation.
Human Rights Council. 2017. ‘National Report Submitted in Accordance with Paragraph 5 of the Annex to Human Rights Council Resolution 16/21’. United Nations. 1 May 2017. Accessed 22 March 2018.
This document is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submitted to the Human Rights Council by the Philippines government. The UPR provides an opportunity for the Philippine government to declare the actions taken to improve human rights in their country. According to the Philippine review, the Philippines was addressing a communist rebellion, unrest in the south, inequality and social injustice, and control of the economy by the political elite and criminal and drug syndicates. The report also provides justifications for the harsh methods used against ‘criminals’.
United Nations. 2016. ‘Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment’. United Nations. 2 June 2016. Accessed 22 March 2018.
This document demonstrates the Philippines commitment to human rights and the prevention of inhuman, degrading treatment and punishment. Actions of the president Duterte’s government and the Philippine armed forces contradict and violate this treaty.
General Assembly. 2016. ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons on His Mission to the Philippines’, United Nations. 5 April 2016. Accessed 22 March 2018
This report highlights the impact of armed conflict and natural disasters have had on internally displaced citizens, and the devastating impact of armed conflict and logging activities against the indigenous population (Lumads). As a result, the Lumads have been subjected to a gross violation of their rights.
To learn more
Simangan, Dahlia. 2018. Is the Philippine “War on Drugs” an Act of Genocide?, Journal of Genocide Research, 20:1, 68-89, DOI: 10.1080/14623528.2017.1379939. Accessed 22nd March.
In this research article Simangan examines whether the implications of President Duterte’s war on drugs, notably the sanctioned extra-judicial killings that comprise this, constitute genocide. Because of difficulties defining genocide, Simangan commits to quantifying this according to Stanton’s ‘The Ten Stages of Genocide’, and on application of these conditions concludes that the situation satisfies these guidelines. Simangan investigates the nature of the campaign and why it has not been the focus of greater national resistance despite it’s the violation of human rights. She builds an argument as to why this should be considered genocide and by extension, why this should be acted upon, despite the war on drugs not fitting ‘conventional’ definitions of genocide.
This brief was put together by the ECR2P interns Colum Dillon, Ciara Miller, Sarah Rakotonirina, Milo Thrumble and Lucy Ward under the supervision and with the assistance of Dr Eglantine Staunton.
Last updated on 7th May 2018.