UN must intensify pressure to end killings as impunity reigns


25 September 2020

The administration of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte continues to incite a wave of extrajudicial executions and fuel a climate of near-absolute impunity for perpetrators, Amnesty International said today in a new briefing on the country’s dramatically deteriorating human rights situation.

The briefing, “My Job is to Kill”: Ongoing human rights violations and impunity in the Philippines, is being published as the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) considers its response to a recent UN report on the country’s human rights crisis.

The briefing takes its name from a March 2020 speech by President Duterte in which he told local officials: “It is my job to scare people, to intimidate people, and to kill people.” 

Amnesty International, together with a coalition of other human rights organisations, is urging the HRC to establish an independent body to conduct an in-depth investigation into human rights violations and abuses committed in the Philippines since 2016.

“Four years into his presidency, Rodrigo Duterte has turned the Philippines into a bloodbath where police and unidentified vigilantes are free to kill as they please,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, Philippines Researcher at Amnesty International.

“This is not an accidental by-product of his administration, but its central feature. Police and other unidentified gunmen know they can kill without consequence. They are taking literally the President’s regular incitement to kill, and his promises to protect those who do so – and so should member states at the Human Rights Council.”

“A panel announced by the government is not credible and cannot deliver justice. The Human Rights Council must not back down now. It must act to prevent further deaths and send a clear message to the perpetrators, and to the government itself: the world is watching and we will not let impunity prevail.”

Amnesty International’s new briefing describes how alleged drug offenders and others suspected of committing crimes continue to be killed with impunity, amid years of incitement to violence by President Duterte and others in his administration. Moreover, often-deadly attacks against activists and human rights defenders accused of links to the communist movement have surged and grown more brazen. Meanwhile, attacks on the media are at their worst levels in decades.

The pattern of extrajudicial executions remains

New cases of drug-related extrajudicial executions examined by Amnesty International remain consistent with patterns that the organisation has documented over the four-year course of the so-called “war on drugs”.

The majority of victims continue to be from poor and marginalized communities; the killings are covered up by falsified reports; and bereaved families consistently express helplessness at the overwhelming obstacles in pursuing justice. 

In one case examined in the briefing, several witnesses to the killing of Kim Lester Ramos in October 2019 told Amnesty International of a sequence of events that differed significantly from the account and photographs provided in the police report.

According to a survivor, who said he was the initial target and was also shot, Kim Lester Ramos was gunned down at point blank range while seeking help for his injured friend. Testimony from eyewitnesses said that Ramos was unarmed, that a gun was later placed in his hand and that the position of his body was changed – all to justify a policeman’s motive of self-defence.

The Ramos family is one of the few that has been supported in their pursuit of justice by local authorities, including from their mayor. In December 2019 the Ramos family filed a murder complaint against the police officer involved. However, at the time of publication, Amnesty International is aware of no further progress on the case.

Killings and incitement amid the pandemic

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, killings are once again rising as the President continues to incite violence against people suspected of having committed a crime, including those accused of using or selling drugs. Moreover, promises by President Duterte to protect those who kill and commit other human rights violations have persisted. This incitement has grown stronger in recent months, despite increased international scrutiny by the UN. 

Analysis of government data by Human Rights Watch has revealed that killings in police anti-drug operations were up by 50 percent during the pandemic. Based on this data, police killed 155 people from April to July 2020, compared to 103 people from December 2019 to March 2020.

In August 2020, the President used a speech to instruct the Bureau of Customs to “kill drug smugglers” and said that he would protect its agents from jail, while claiming he had approved the agency’s request to purchase firearms. He also taunted human rights organisations: “These human rights people are so timid. What do you do? Just count the dead? Sons of b*tches, you should change jobs, not in human rights. Work at morgues if that’s all that you do.”

A photojournalist documenting killings in Metro Manila recently told Amnesty International that a reshuffling of police commanders had recently led to a “spike in cases” of killings in the city since the appointment of a new police chief at the start of September 2020. 

Apart from killings by police, executions by motorcycle-riding assailants have continued in recent months. A Quezon City priest, Father Robert Reyes, says that over two weeks in July, he presided over three funeral masses in one community alone for victims of unlawful killings by unidentified gunmen. Such killings by unidentified vigilantes have been repeatedly linked back to the police.

The deeply flawed approach to the “war on drugs” continues to obstruct efforts to ensure people are protected from problems associated with drugs. Amnesty International continues to call on authorities to shift away from punitive approaches based on criminalization and refocus its attention on health and other social services. Drug policies must be centred upon an expansion of health and other social services to address drug-related problems, including prevention, information, harm reduction, voluntary treatment and rehabilitation services on a non-discriminatory basis, including in prisons and other situations where people are deprived of their liberty.  

Surge in attacks and killings linked to “red tagging”

Amnesty International has also documented how President Duterte’s declaration of “all-out war” against “communist rebels,” following the breakdown of peace talks in 2018 has resulted in a raft of arbitrary arrests and detention of people deemed critical of the government, as well as the killing of activists and human rights defenders. 

“For years, the authorities have used ‘red-tagging’ to brand and discredit anyone whose human rights campaigning or community work they disapprove of,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard. “Today, red-tagging has become a very real death threat.”

In one recent egregious example, on 17 August 2020, Negros-based activist and human rights defender Zara Alvarez, whom Amnesty International interviewed in December 2019, was shot dead by an unknown assailant in Bacolod City. Alvarez had received death threats before her murder. A week earlier, on 10 August 2020, activist and peace advocate Randall Echanis was killed, along with a neighbour, at his home in Quezon City. An autopsy report determined that he sustained multiple stab wounds.

Both Alvarez and Echanis had previously been “red-tagged” and placed on an arbitrary list of “terrorists” drawn up by the Department of Justice and submitted to a Philippine court. Although their names were eventually removed, the list originally included many prominent activists and human rights defenders, including then UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.

As with relatives of victims of drug-related killings, families and friends of those slain expressed anger and feelings of powerlessness when it came to getting justice. Human rights groups fear that a new and overbroad anti-terror law will only increase the risks faced by activists and human rights defenders.

The UN Human Rights Office documented at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists and trade unionists killed in relation to their work between 2015 and 2019 in the Philippines.

A Negros official told Amnesty International that while impunity was nothing new, the situation on the island was “the worst ever”, adding: “Red-tagging is the preliminary step to killing.” 

Attacks against journalists

Alongside the widely publicised harassment faced by journalist Maria Ressa and her Rappler newsroom and efforts by the administration to force broadcaster ABS-CBN off the air, Amnesty International’s briefing describes the broader culture of fear and violence faced by journalists across the country.

Nonoy Espina, the national chairperson of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, told Amnesty International that not since “the Marcos dictatorship have the media and freedom of the press and expression been attacked” as they are currently.

These attacks have also been deadly. On the evening of 5 May 2020, radio broadcaster Cornelio “Rex Cornelio” Pepino was murdered in Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental province, becoming the 16th journalist to be killed during the Duterte administration.

According to media reports, Pepino was riding home from work on a motorcycle with his wife when two unidentified men also on a motorcycle shot him several times and killed him. The radio station Pepino worked for described him as a “hard-hitting” radio commentator who discussed his positions against illegal mining, graft, corruption, and poor governance in his daily program.

The Duterte administration cannot investigate itself

Amnesty International’s briefing describes how the culture of impunity has persisted in the Philippines despite international pressure from civil society and human rights organisations over the past four years, culminating in last year’s HRC resolution 41/2 which mandated a report on the human rights situation in the Philippines by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This report was published in June 2020. 

Amnesty International’s findings support the conclusions of the report, which states that the climate of impunity continues and is encouraged by the incitement to violence from “the highest levels of government”.

In an apparent effort to pre-empt calls for an independent investigative mechanism at the HRC, the Philippine Justice Secretary used an HRC meeting in July 2020 to announce the creation of a government inter-agency panel to review more than 5,600 cases of killings during police-led operations.  

Since this announcement, the government has shared no new details about this panel.

“All we know of this panel is it will include the very same agencies responsible for the killings, the attacks, and the harassment which they are supposed to investigate. This is a clear example of being both judge and party, and shows its complete lack of independence,” said Rachel Chhoa-Howard.

“The timing and circumstances of this panel’s announcement, together with the lack of specifics provided to the public, is clearly designed to shield the government from scrutiny. States at the Human Rights Council must not be fooled into taking this initiative seriously.

“It’s obvious the Duterte administration has no intention of delivering justice to thousands of bereaved families, all while the President repeatedly incites violence and promises to protect perpetrators.

“It now falls to the Human Rights Council to mandate a strong, independent investigative body – all while honouring the High Commissioner’s repeated calls to continue monitoring the Philippines’ human rights crisis.”