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Philippines: Duterte’s administration should be held accountable for the killings of activists and human rights defenders

March 18, 2021

BANGKOK – The Philippine Government must face international accountability for its widespread killing of activists and human rights defenders, and the grave human rights violations it has committed, seven human rights groups said in a statement today.

On 7 March 2021, members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the military killed nine community-based activists and arrested six in coordinated raids across four provinces, in a massacre that highlighted the continuous attacks against the government’s critics. Two days prior to this incident, Duterte had issued a shoot-to-kill order targeting communist rebels, saying, ‘If the enemy is holding a gun, kill them. Kill them right away.’ He further noted ‘Ignore human rights. That is my order.’

‘Duterte’s inciting rhetoric and terrorist-tagging of human rights defenders, activists and critics have resulted in the harassment and violence against them, as well as their death. This demonstrates the increasingly dangerous space, not just for human rights defenders, but for all of civil society and the Philippine people at large,’ said Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA.

Under Duterte’s government, civil society and human rights defenders have found themselves in danger particularly for opposing the government’s ‘war on drugs’ and his repressive policies. Duterte has consistently incited violence against his critics, while blaming human rights defenders for the increase in the number of drug users. He has threatened to behead human rights activists, and justified the assassination of ‘corrupt journalists’, as he continues to promise protections to police who follow these orders. There have also been allegations where evidence was planted by the police and military forces to justify the violence.

‘Despite the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report that details widespread and systematic human rights violations by the government, including the killing of human rights defenders, and a subsequent resolution providing technical assistance on human rights to the government, the violence and harassment against rights defenders have only intensified. These killings highlight the need for an immediate international investigative mechanism to ensure accountability for all perpetrators,’ the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders said.

This crackdown on civic space is being institutionalised through state policy. In July 2020, the government implemented an Anti-Terror Law which allows a Council composed of state officials to designate individuals as terrorists, without a court order. A local resolution targeting left-leaning personality with ‘drug-style’ operations was released in the Cordillera region in February 2021. Government officials, and the security sector continue to tag activists and civil society members as terrorists, communists and subversives in their public speeches, endangering their safety and security.

Since 2016 when Duterte took power, FORUM-ASIA has documented at least 59 killings, including extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders in the country.

‘These attacks go beyond individual killings; they reinforce an environment where people are afraid to question and dissent, further perpetuating this cycle of impunity. This proves that the UN Human Rights Council’s recent resolution has been ineffective at stemming these violations, and the international community must immediately initiate clear and sustained action to hold the perpetrators to account,’ said CIVICUS Asia Pacific researcher, Josef Benedict.

‘Domestic human rights mechanisms remain compromised, while human rights defenders face threats every day. An international investigative mechanism for the extrajudicial killings related to the “war on drugs”, and the killings of rights defenders, is even more imperative today, than it has ever been,’ said the groups.