Impunity in the Philippines

After Duterte’s drug war killings, abuses, what’s next in 2023?

Jodesz Gavilan

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After Duterte’s drug war killings, abuses, what’s next in 2023?
(2nd UPDATE) Families of victims are waiting with bated breath for justice over the bloodbath under Duterte. What will 2023 bring?

MANILA, Philippines – The new year may bring fresh beginnings for people, but for many Filipinos still reeling from the impact of violence and impunity under former president Rodrigo Duterte, it marks an extended period of waiting for justice.

Human rights groups refer to the Duterte years as having the worst human rights crisis post-Martial Law due to the widespread killings prompted by his bloody anti-illegal drugs campaign and the blatant assault on civic space and the rule of law, among others. 

Government data show that at least 6,252 individuals were killed in police anti-drug operations between July 2016 and May 31, 2022. But human rights groups place the number at between 27,000 to 30,000 to include those killed vigilante-style.

Six months after Duterte left office, families of victims are waiting with bated breath for a semblance of accountability for those responsible for the bloodbath and other human rights violations.

Will 2023 bring better outcomes in their quest for justice? What should we watch out for in 2023? 

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Duterte’s violent war on drugs, as recorded by rights groups, int’l bodies

Duterte’s violent war on drugs, as recorded by rights groups, int’l bodies
1. Next moves at the International Criminal Court

All eyes are on the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its next move, given the thousands of killings under Duterte.

ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan is set to continue his office’s investigation into the drug war after the court’s pre-trial chamber on January 26 authorized the resumption of the probe. It said that it is “not satisfied that the Philippines is undertaking relevant investigations that would warrant a deferral of the Court’s investigations on the basis of the complementarity principle.”

Khan’s office is expected to seek more evidence that could lead to a request for the issuance of summons or warrants to those involved in the drug war.

The ICC’s pre-trial chamber first green-lit a drug war probe in September 2021, but Khan temporarily paused it in November 2021 as a matter of procedure to assess the Philippine government’s deferral request. He, however, explicitly stated that his office would continue to examine information already obtained prior to the suspension. 

Almost a year later in June 2022, Khan requested for a resumption of his office’s probe, emphasizing that there were no genuine investigations done by the government and that the inter-agency review panel set up by the Department of Justice appeared to conduct a mere “desk review” that by “itself does not constitute investigative activity.”

In September 2022, Khan said the deferral requested by the Philippine government was “not warranted” as its response showed that “criminal proceedings actually have been or are being conducted in anything more than a small number of cases.”

An investigation is crucial in the ICC process, wherein prosecutor Khan can request for any summons or arrest warrant from the court

Human rights lawyer Krissy Conti, secretary-general of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers-National Capital Region, said that ICC developments are important, given the blatant lack of access to justice in the country.

An ICC investigation into the drug war killings should proceed “on the premise that we have not forgotten our humanity.”

A report released by United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in September 2022 highlighted the need for the Philippine government to do more in its investigations into incidents of abuses under Duterte.

“Any movement in the ICC investigation will signal to all that international accountability mechanisms not just exist and work, but are also effective,” Conti told Rappler on Wednesday, January 4, pointing out the lack of systematic response in the country.

“Access to justice means that those who need and deserve it the most can obtain it in the most attainable, reasonable, and comprehensible manner,” she added.

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2. Supreme Court updates on the drug war case 

In 2017, law groups representing victims and their families filed petitions before the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of Duterte’s anti-illegal drugs campaign. In the same year, the SC held oral arguments on the issues raised. 

Six years later, in 2023, the High Court has yet to issue a decision. 

A Rappler investigation in 2021, which scrutinized the first batch of documents submitted to the SC, found that the files were incomplete and almost rubbish, pointing to a poorly-documented drug war.

Lawyer Ray Paolo Santiago, executive director of the Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC), is hoping that the SC resolves the petitions “at the soonest possible time.” 

AHRC released a research study in 2019 on the legal framework of Duterte’s drug war, concluding that the circulars and legal documents related to the campaign violate rights guaranteed by the 1987 Philippine Constitution.

“[The SC decision] is important since we do not want a similar policy being put into place in the future [and] a decision by the SC that the policy is unconstitutional will prevent a recurrence,” Santiago said.

“Developments with regard to the need for a UN Joint Program on Human Rights and the ICC investigation show the need for reforms and domestic accountability to work,” he added.

COMMISSION. CHR chairperson Richard Palpal-latoc and commissioner Beda Epres (center and right) lead a meeting with Roy Mabasa, brother of slain broadcaster Percy Lapid on October 26, 2022. Photo by Jire Carreon/Rappler
3. Completion of the CHR en banc 

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) still has an incomplete leadership, with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. so far appointing three of what should be an en banc, consisting of one chairperson and four commissioners, as indicated in the 1987 Philippine Constitution. 

The term of the previous CHR en banc – perhaps the most embattled leadership in the commission’s history – expired in May 2022.

Duterte did not appoint anyone during his remaining two months in office, while it took Marcos two months into his term to appoint Office of the Ombudsman investigation bureau director Beda Epres as the CHR’s new commissioner and former Malacañang deputy executive secretary Richard Palpal-latoc as chairperson. 

It also took Marcos more than three months to name another CHR commissioner, lawyer and National Nutrition Council deputy executive director Faydah Dumarpa. Her appointment paper was signed on December 28, 2022.

Former human rights commissioner Karen Gomez-Dumpit told Rappler that completing the CHR en banc the soonest possible time is important since it will enhance democratic checks and balances in the country. 

The commission, mandated to primarily investigate state abuses, has a huge task ahead of it in the aftermath of Duterte’s human rights record and widespread impunity. It also has to face head on the challenges left by the previous administration while dealing with a lack of resources, including manpower.

“One of the worst things that a government can do to weaken CHR is to keep leadership positions vacant,” Dumpit said, pointing out that this is possibly the longest time that the commission has had incomplete leadership.

“The longer it takes to constitute the leadership in the body only indicates that the government is not interested in human rights promotion and protection,” she added. 

NO TO RED-TAGGING. Progressive groups call for a stop to red-tagging on March 30, 2022. Rappler
4. Court actions vs red-tagging

Red-tagging thrived throughout the Duterte administration, while it continued to exist under the Marcos presidency, placing the lives of many Filipinos in danger. 

Online posts tagging individuals – from journalists, activists, medical professionals, to even celebrities, among others – as members and supporters of the communist insurgency were a common sight in the past six years. These dangerous posts often came from government officials themselves, most notably from the  National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

In many cases, the online red-tagging led to real-life violence or worse, death.

There were people and groups, however, who took steps to counter the dangerous lies and propaganda, filing cases against the usual perpetrators of red-tagging.

Can we expect courts to act on these cases in 2023?

5. The fate of EU’s GSP+ with PH 

The Philippines currently benefits from the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+), a perk implemented by the European Union that gives special incentives and zero tariffs on products.

The GSP+ covers 6,200 Philippine products and is given to countries on condition that human rights standards are upheld. In the past six years, several members of the EU Parliament had threatened to cut the GSP+ privileges of the Philippines because of the climate of impunity under Duterte.

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In February 2022, the EU Parliament adopted a resolution urging the EU Commission, the body that decides on the GSP+, to “immediately initiate the procedure which could lead to the temporary withdrawal” of the perk in the absence of “substantial improvement and willingness to cooperate on the part of the Philippine authorities.”

Duterte, however, left office in June 2022 without the process materializing. But the current GSP+ is set to expire in 2023, and the EU Commission already proposed a new regulation that when passed, will take effect in January 2024.

The Philippines will need to reapply to be covered again by the new scheme. Based on the draft, one of the requirements is a plan of action on human rights and ratification of more than 30 international human rights conventions. Civil society groups are also pushing for requirements to include ratification of the Rome Statute – the founding legal document of the International Criminal Court. The Philippines withdrew from the ICC in 2019.

Relations between the EU and the Philippines were strained under Duterte, and the Marcos government is now feeling the pressure and after-effects.

In October 2022, Trade Secretary Alfredo Pascual urged the EU Parliament Committee on International Trade to renew the Philippines’ inclusion in the scheme, citing “significant developments” in the country, which included an alleged change on how the anti-illegal drug campaign is being approached, among others.

In the same month, a Senate delegation which included Senator and presidential sister Imee Marcos went to Brussels to meet with the EU Parliament.

The EU Commission is set to release its assessment of countries’ records soon, which can inform the decision of the commission. The last assessment of the Philippines’ obligations was released in 2020 and covered the years 2018 to 2019.

Claudio Francavilla, Human Rights Watch’s senior EU advocate, said that the current human rights situation in the Philippines – lack of accountability over drug war killings, red-tagging, and the continued persecution of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former senator Leila de Lima, among others – indicates “blatant violations” of the country’s GSP+ obligations.

“If the EU is serious about the scheme, it should publicly set clear, specific, time bound benchmarks for the Filipino government to comply with its end of the deal,” he told Rappler on Thursday, January 5.

“Failure to do so would be a blank check for the Marcos administration, a green light for abuses, and a blow to the GSP’s credibility,” Francavilla added. –

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.