[OPINION] ‘Meaningful change' from within? Not when it’s the Duterte gov’t behind the killings

President Rodrigo Duterte desperately wants no one to interfere with his bloody anti-illegal drug campaign. 

Duterte, during his speech before the United Nations (UN) General Assembly this week, reiterated the existence of the Philippines' inter-agency panel tasked to investigate irregularities in the war on drugs. He said that “those found to have acted beyond bounds during operations shall be made accountable before our laws.” 

It is easy to see that the much-boasted drug war review panel led by the Department of Justice is yet to achieve anything significant since it was launched in June 2020. (READ: Duterte gov't insists there is working justice in drug war but can't show proof)

The initial findings show that there was a failure to follow standard protocols in several anti-drug police operations. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra announced these findings before the UN Human Rights Council in February 2021. 

In any other industry, even in our personal projects, finding lapses in operations would mean it is time to step back and recalibrate because problems may arise. 

But did the government stop the drug war when it found serious lapses, despite calls from many human rights organizations? Of course not, even if the findings affirmed the fact that there is a bigger systematic failure on how the flagship project was set up. No cases have been filed so far against erring policemen. The DOJ is yet to even publicly release its reports, citing the need for Duterte’s clearance – another red flag. 

The efforts by the government appear to be inadequate and meant to appease international bodies that have mechanisms to act stronger against the Duterte government. If they were serious, we’d be seeing charges filed before those responsible for the bloodbath on our streets, alleys, even in our own homes. 

More patience?

Guevarra on Wednesday, September 22, asked for more patience when reporters asked for the second report of the drug war review panel. “So konting patience lang (Just a little patience), we’re not doing things in secret," he said. 

Asking for patience is too much already. Babies born on the day the first gun was fired in the name of Duterte’s anti-illegal drug campaign are probably already in kindergarten. The children of those killed after being forcibly dragged out of their homes are now older by five years. 

There is now a generation coming of age in a time when the night routine of many include wondering whether that loud and piercing sound at night is gunfire, or just a stubborn kid setting up firecrackers. There are toddlers saying their first words while in the backdrop are wailing mothers and wives.

It’s easy to be patient when you are not a family that lost not just one, not even two, but three or more members to the drug war. It’s easy to be patient when you’re not the one in hiding, or fearing that you will be shot to death while sleeping, just like what they did to your loved one. 

Some may argue that fixing the drug war mess takes time, just like many institutional changes needed in the country, that the “technical assistance” given by the UN Human Rights Council in October 2022 can help but we cannot just expect things to be okay immediately. 

But we are talking about lives already taken and will be taken. A day can easily mean five or more dead bodies. What more a week? A month? A year?

There were already over 5,700 killed in police operations when the Duterte government announcd its creation of a drug war review panel in June 2020. When the UN HRC adopted the “disappointing” October 2020 resolution, the number rose to at least 5,900. In February 2021, when the DOJ announced its findings, the number was at 6,069.

As of July 31, 2021, the number is now at 6,181 killed in police operations alone. This does not even include those killed vigilante-style, which human rights groups estimate the total to be around 27,000 to 30,000. (READ: How the Duterte government underreports drug war killings)

How many more deaths can a country take?

Blood on your hands

The International Criminal Court finally opened a full investigation into the Philippine situation, an indication that the denials and threats of the Duterte government did not work for them.

I hope that the United Nations and its member-states look past Duterte’s words and realize what is truly happening on the ground. I wish they realize that by taking the President’s assurances – hook, line, and sinker –they are not just contributing to the deteriorating situation in the Philippines, but also ignoring the plight of families left behind by victims of the war on drugs. 

The more leeway international bodies give to the Duterte government, the more chances more children will be orphaned, or even killed.

More mothers will lose their sons and daughters, wives their husbands. More people have to live a life of constant fear just because they want to get justice for their loved ones. 

Duterte told the UN that “meaningful change, to be enduring, must come from within.” But this is not attainable especially if it is the government accused of widespread human rights violations. (READ: Killing as state policy: 10 things the ICC says about Duterte’s drug war)

We can’t continue to act in good faith and believe that things are working or can work just because we want to stand up for our domestic mechanisms. No one wants our systems to fail.

But to ignore all signs of a worsening situation and still hang on to every word of a government whose state policy includes killing – as indicated by the ICC pre-trial chamber, it makes one complicit in the continuing bloodbath. – Rappler.com

Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.

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