United Nations to launch probe into Philippine drugs war

Nicola Smith
Relatives of drugs war victims call for a UN investigation - AFP

The United Nations’ top human rights body on Thursday voted to launch an investigation into thousands of killings in the Philippines’ brutal war on drugs. 

The narrow vote of 18 to 14 countries, with 15 abstentions, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva was immediately hailed as a victory by human rights groups who have long called for international intervention over the rising death toll of President Rodrigo Duterte’s three year anti-drugs campaign.

However, the Philippines immediately denounced the decision, which was backed mainly by European countries including the UK, and which requests Manila to comply with a year-long probe by the high commissioner for human rights, as a “travesty.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary, Teodoro Locsin Jr, tweeted: “such resolutions especially those passed by a tiny minority can and will be ignored. No consequences. On the other hand, the initiative to insult the Philippines with the assumption without proof that it commits gross abuses there will be far reaching consequences.”

The UN resolution, which was drafted by Iceland, marks the first time the UNHCR has been asked to address the staggering crisis. 

The Philippine police have admitted to killing more than 6,600 people during anti-drug operations, often justifying the death on the grounds that the suspects resisted arrest and fought back, despite witness statements to the contrary. 

The shooting of three-year-old Myka Ulpina during a sting operation last month shocked the nation, with Ronald dela Rosa, a former police chief, incensing public opinion further by claiming that “s**t happens during operations.”

According to Human Rights Watch, the body count of the merciless drugs war, where suspected users and dealers have allegedly been killed extrajudicially both by police and masked assassins, is much higher than official estimates.

Local activists and the national Commission on Human Rights place the figure at more than 27,000.

Thursday’s resolution expresses concern at the allegations of killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and the intimidation of or violence against human rights workers, journalists, lawyers and the political opposition. 

It stresses that “the right to life must be respected and protected by all law enforcement agencies in their efforts to address drug-related crimes,” calling for “fair trials and due process.”

The 2020 report could form the basis of further action if the situation does not improve, and was welcomed by both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, who have produced extensive reports on violations. 

“The Human Rights Council resolution on the Philippines is a modest but vital measure,” said Laila Matar, deputy Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. 

“It signals the start of accountability for thousands of ‘drug war’-related killings and other abuses, and will provide hope to countless survivors and families of victims.”

Amnesty, which in a new report earlier this week revealed that extrajudicial killings remained rampant, called the decision “a crucial step towards justice and accountability.”

Nicholas Bequelin, regional director for East and Southeast Asia said: “This vote provides hope for thousands of bereaved families in the Philippines, and countless more Filipinos bravely challenging the Duterte administration’s murderous ‘war on drugs’.”

He urged the Philippine government to cooperate with investigators. “The Human Rights Council resolution sends a clear message that the international community will not look the other way as extrajudicial executions and other serious violations continue to be committed with impunity,” he said.