President Rodrigo Duterte fires a few rounds with a sniper rifle during the opening ceremony of the National Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Challenge in Davao City, southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Photo: AFP/Presidential Photo Division/Joey Dalumpines

MANILA – Calls for sanctions and accountability for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s lethal war on drugs campaign are gaining global momentum as the United Nations adds its voice to the rising chorus. 

During the UN Human Rights Council’s 41st regular session on June 30, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet roundly criticized the campaign’s widespread “impunity” and “systematic” use of violence, which has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings in the country. 

She criticized the deadly policy as “ineffective” given the absence of any significant decrease in illegal drug supplies in the country and highlighted the government’s unwillingness to grant access to UN investigators to probe alleged rights abuses and crimes against humanity. 

The UN’s rights chief also encouraged Duterte’s administration to reconsider a draconian anti-terror bill that critics fear could be weaponized against voices of dissent. 

“[T]he recent passage of the new anti-terror bill heightens our concerns on the blurring of important distinctions between criticism, criminality and terrorism,” Bachelet said, underscoring the international community’s concerns over Duterte’s authoritarian policies amid the pandemic. “I would urge the President to refrain from signing the law.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet wearing a protective face mask at the Human Rights Council on June 17, 2020 in Geneva. Photo: AFP/Martial Trezzini/Pool

The United States has already imposed travel bans on several senior Filipino officials and key Duterte allies, including former police chief and current senator Ronald Dela Rosa, previously the key implementor of the drug war. The European Union, Canada and Australia are all expected to follow suit. 

At home, Philippine Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Commissioner Karen Lucia Gomez-Dumpit criticized the governent’s “overreliance on a strong-arm approach”, which she says “has largely contributed to the pervading culture of impunity.” 

“To improve the human rights situation, the Philippines must change course, translate UN recommendations into concrete actions,” she added.

Duterte’s deputies see the situation differently.  

“Claims that there is impunity or near impunity in the country find no anchor in a system that provides every avenue to examine claims of wrongdoing,” countered Duterte’s Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, who reiterated the Philippines’ constitutional commitment to upholding human rights. 

“Our president ran and won on a campaign promise of a drug-free Philippines. The president has discharged this mandate faithfully. It enjoys strong and widespread support of our people,” he added, claiming the drug war reflects the will of the people and is broadly effective. 

Yet the prospect of formal prosecution of top Philippine officials, including Duterte, by the International Criminal Court (ICC) is growing. 

On June 25, a panel of UN experts formally recommended the imposition of punitive measures against Filipino officials involved in widespread human rights violations.

Filipino police officers investigate an alleged drug dealer killed by unidentified gunman in Manila in a file photo. Photo: AFP/ Noel Celis

“We call on member states to initiate, whenever possible, governmental sanctions and criminal prosecution against individual Philippine officials who have committed, incited or failed to prevent human rights abuses,” said the experts, who have finalized a report for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the situation in the Philippines.

The experts pointed out how even the “most conservative assessment” of Duterte’s drug war shows that since 2016 – the year Duterte rose to power – over 8,600 individuals have been killed under suspicious circumstances, including extrajudicial killings conducted by police and state-sponsored vigilante groups. 

“At least 73 children were killed during that period in the context of a campaign against illegal drugs,” noted the UN experts, underscoring the campaign’s brutality and indiscriminate nature. Some reports put the number of deaths among minors as high as 122, including a one-year-old victim. 

They also warned of Duterte’s exploitation of emergency powers amid the ongoing pandemic to muzzle independent media and push for draconian measures, including the anti-terrorism law, which has been widely criticized by human rights groups and constitutional experts. 

“This focus [on national security measures] has permeated the implementation of existing laws and policies and the adoption of new measures – often at the expense of human rights, due process rights, the rule of law, and accountability,” the statement added. 

“Despite credible allegations of widespread and systematic extrajudicial killings in the context of the campaign against illegal drugs, there has been near impunity for such violations.” the newly-released UN report, which was presented to the UN Human Rights Council at its session opening on June 22, said.  

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in strongman campaign mode in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

The report criticized top Filipino officials of encouraging a climate of impunity through an inflammatory rhetoric “risen to the level of incitement to violence.” Duterte has openly encouraged law enforcement officials to kill suspected drug dealers, publicly vowing to protect them against any prosecution for human rights violations. 

“[An] overarching focus on public order and national security, including countering terrorism and illegal drugs, (came) often at the expense of human rights, due process rights, the rule of law and accountability”, the report warned. 

Meanwhile, the ICC, which has already opened a preliminary investigation into mass atrocities in the Philippines related to the drug war, is said to be carefully weighing prosecution of top Philippine officials. 

Some experts believe that the ICC could issue warrants of arrest for top Filipino officials, including Duterte, later this year. Duterte has dug in against the accusations. 

“You do not scare me that you will jail me in the International Criminal Court. I will never allow myself to answer these whites,” Duterte defiantly said last December, when discussing the prospect of facing an international trial for human rights violations. 

“I will never, never, never answer any question coming from you. It’s bullshit to me. I am only responsible to the Filipino. Filipinos will judge,” he lashed out at the international court, falsely portraying it as a Western body. The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is a Gambian lawyer. 

Rising UN and ICC pressure is impacting on the Philippines’ diplomacy. In January, a key Duterte ally revealed that multiple top officials faced travel bans in the United States over allegations of widespread human rights violations. 

Weeks later, Duterte retaliated by initiating the termination of a key defense agreement with the US, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which threw the century-old alliance and hundreds of annual joint military exercises into disarray. 

The move may have encouraged China to push its claims more aggressively in the South China Sea in recent months. Facing growing domestic pressure, the Filipino president reversed his VFA decision, reportedly in order to keep Chinese ambitions at bay. 

However, additional Western sanctions and the prospect of ICC prosecution could encourage Duterte to pivot back to China ahead of the presidential campaign next year, some analysts suggest.  

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) toast during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Mark R Cristino

In recent years, China has openly expressed its support for Duterte’s drug war and has defended him in international fora, including at the UN Human Rights Council. 

There is widespread belief among analysts and experts that China – through its Filipino-Chinese businessmen proxies – played a role in Duterte’s surprise election win in 2016. 

A China-friendly successor could ensure Duterte’s protection from future prosecution and perpetuate Beijing’s substantial interests in the Philippines, some suggest. 

Duterte is expected to endorse either his daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, or long-time aide Senator Christopher Go, as his preferred successor. But experts are already warning of possible Chinese “Manchurian candidates.” 

Former Navy vice commander Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong has already warned of Chinese influence operations ahead of the 2022 elections, as Duterte seeks to ensure a successor of his liking. 

“If we want to counter China’s sharp power, then we should prepare for the national elections in 2022,” said Ong, a leading voice on Chinese political and psychological warfare operations. 

“If we deny our share of the responsibility as citizens in preserving our way of life, then we might face an electoral contest not among political parties but against China’s preferred candidates.” 

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