Philippine Drug War: extrajudicial killings and police impunity

The Philippine drug war is an infamous anti-narcotics policy and crack down on suspected drug dealers and users under President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in June 2016. Notably, before being elected as President, Mr Duterte was the mayor of Davao City for over two decades – under his governance, the so-called “Davao Death Squad” killed hundreds of drug users, street children, and petty criminals; and he was known for endorsing their killings as an effective way of combating crime. After his election, Mr Duterte launched a campaign against “illegal drug personalities”, claiming that the Philippines had become a “narco-state” and promising that he would personally ensure that millions of drug users would be killed. The anti-drug campaign, dubbed as “Operation Double Barrel”, has targeted those suspected of using or distributing drugs, ostensibly for arrest. However, it has become evident that, in practice, the police and vigilante groups are carrying out systemic extrajudicial killings of suspects without proof of drug use, and often falsifying evidence to justify the unlawful killings.

In an investigation of 24 incidents that occurred between October 2016 and January 2017, which resulted in 32 deaths, Human Rights Watch found a discrepancy between official police reports and eyewitness accounts. While police reports asserted (and continue to assert) self-defence to justify the killings, eyewitness accounts overwhelmingly state that unarmed, defenceless suspects were killed in custody. The report also found evidence that the police routinely planted guns, spent ammunition, and drug packets next to the victims’ bodies to back up their claims.

Over the course of the campaign, the majority of victims were from impoverished urban areas, either unemployed or working menial jobs; and many were suspected drug users and not dealers. In addition, local human rights groups have identified an official modus operandi: an individual would first receive a visit from a neighbourhood official, informing them that they were on a watch list. These visits have been proved as being a method of confirming a target’s identity and location, rather than being official warnings – as shortly after the visit, armed assailants would barge into homes and shoot targets. Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that the assailants failed to identify themselves or provide official warrants, usually wearing civilian clothes and shielding their faces with masks, caps, or helmets. In September 2016, for instance, 32-year-old Rogie Sebastian was handcuffed and shot in his home by three armed, marked men. A neighbour testified: “I heard the gunshots. There were also uniformed cops outside, they did not go inside the house. But the three killers in civilian clothes came and went on a motorcycle without any interference from the uniformed cops.”

The death toll over the course of the campaign is greatly debated, with contradicting claims made by police officials, the Philippines government, and human rights groups. To date, Human Rights Watch has estimated the deaths of over 12,000 Filipinos, at least 2500 of which were attributed to the Philippines National Police. But in December 2018, the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights suggested that the number of drug-war killings might be as high as 27,000; while recent government data states that 5,600 suspected drug dealers and users were killed in operations since July 2016. Overall, the campaign appears to have intensified this year, with a recorded 50% increase in drug-war deaths during the lockdown from April to July.

In addition, the extrajudicial killings have been aided by the failure to arrest and consequently prosecute responsible police officers. A UN report, released in July 2020, states that the Philippines police regularly raid homes and private property without legitimate warrants, forcing suspects to make self-incriminating statements or risk lethal force. Yet since 2016, there has only been 1 conviction for the killing of a suspect during police operations, while the government maintains that all deaths have occurred legitimately. 

The recent UN report cites three key concerns regarding the government’s hardline policy towards suspected drug users – firstly, that harsh drug enforcement could lead to users “going underground”, away from critical health services. This could fuel the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C among users and certainly discourage people with addiction from seeking effective treatment. Secondly, the UN report states that extrajudicial killings committed on baseless grounds are accompanied by “near-impunity” for such violations, which would embolden police to behave as if they have permission to kill. Finally, the report raises concern over the government’s vilification of open criticism against the anti-drug policy, stating that attacks against critics of the anti-narcotics campaign are being “increasingly institutionalised and normalised in ways that will be very difficult to reverse.” For instance, the government has used their Covid-19 special powers laws to file criminal charges against people criticising them online; and between 2015-2019, at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists, and trade unionists were killed in relation to their work. 

The government appears to be maintaining and perhaps even intensifying its hardline stance against narcotics – in June, President Duterte renewed his threat to kill drug dealers upon the seizure of 756kg of crystal methamphetamine, just a day after the UN report claimed near impunity on the part of the police in the drug war. Mr Duterte said that these drugs were proof that the Philippines was a transshipment point for illegal drugs and stated, in a recorded address: “If you destroy my country distributing 5.1 billion pesos worth of shabu…I will kill you.” 

There are growing calls among human rights groups and other parties for the UN Human Rights Council to order a further independent inquiry concerning human rights abuses in the Philippines.  “Like the UN, we are deeply concerned by the total impunity enjoyed by those who have perpetrated these crimes,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific regional director.


Philippines’ War on Drugs:

“License to Kill”:

Philippines’ war on drugs may have killed tens of thousands:

Philippines drug war: Do we know how many have died?:

“I will kill you”: Philippines’ Duterte renews drug war threat:

UN Report: Situation of human rights in the Philippines: 

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Author: Nikita Nandanwad

Editor: Kelsey Greeff

Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik