The UN human rights council has been accused of a “collective failure” over its decision not to call for an investigation into the tens of thousands of killings alleged to have occurred under Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs”.
Human rights groups and UN experts had repeatedly called for an inquiry into the anti-narcotics crackdown, launched by the president after he won the 2016 election on a promise to rid the country of drugs.
The exact death toll from anti-drug operations is not known: government figures show at least 8,663 people have been killed, other estimates suggest triple that number. At least 122 children are among those who have died.
It follows a landmark report by the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, who warned of “near impunity” for widespread extra-judicial killings, despite credible evidence, and of “the vilification of dissent” in the Philippines.
It also verified the killings of 208 human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists between January 2015 and December 2010. Obstacles to justice in the country were “almost insurmountable”, it said.
Since mid-2016, there has been only one conviction for the killing of a drug suspect in a police operation.
In a statement, Amnesty International said the human rights council had “failed to advance justice for bereaved families” and had let down “the brave human rights defenders, journalists and others who have engaged with the UN in good faith and pursue their work at huge personal risk”.
The resolution passed on Wednesday, led jointly by Iceland and the Philippines, requested that the UN human rights office supports the Philippines through “technical assistance”. This could include assistance with domestic investigations and data gathering on alleged police violations.
The resolution recognised cooperation between Duterte’s government and the UN country team, and the government’s efforts “to further broaden positive engagement with the United Nations system”.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque reiterated on Wednesday that Duterte does not support the use of unnecessary force in the crackdown on crime.
However, critics pointed out numerous comments in which Duterte has endorsed violence. Just months ago, at the start of lockdown, Duterte told police to crack down on curfew violators and anyone causing trouble, stating: “Shoot them dead.”
The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines said earlier this week that, despite suggestions that the Philippines is engaging with the UN, abuses continue.
“Killings have not abated, harassments continue, ‘lawfare’ remains and non-cooperation persists as prevailing practice, specifically on investigation on killings resulting from the administration’s ‘drug war’,” the commission said.
Over recent months, between April and July, 155 people were killed during drug raids, according to Human Rights Watch analysis of government data – an increase when compared with the four months leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Government attacks on the media and activists have also spiralled. The country’s biggest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, which had been repeatedly threatened by Duterte, was forced off-air in May, while prominent journalist Maria Ressa is facing up to six years in prison after she was found guilty of “cyberlibel” charges. The case against her has been widely condemned as politically motivated.
A new antiterrorism act, passed by lawmakers in July, has also prompted concern among rights groups. The law allows warrantless arrests, weeks of detention without charge and other powers.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch said the human rights council decision was a “collective failure” that “fails to reflect the gravity of the situation on the ground”.
“At the same time, it is quite clear that Duterte and the state forces behind the brutal campaign are not off the hook and will face continued examination,” added Laila Matar, deputy UN director for Human Rights Watch.
“States at the Human Rights Council should follow up and ensure an international investigation is launched in the event that the killings and crackdown on civil society does not end,” she said.