Confronting extrajudicial killings under Duterte

Teddy A. Casiño

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Confronting extrajudicial killings under Duterte
If we are to stop the killings, the first challenge is for the public to denounce it. Public opposition, or better yet outrage, is needed for the government to change its policy.

With more than 3,000 drug war-related killings and counting, there is no doubt that President Rodrigo Duterte is continuing the unwritten state policy of extrajudicial killings (EJKs) against perceived “enemies of the state.”

Whereas before, the policy was directed against suspected rebels or political dissenters, this time it is against suspected illegal drug users and traffickers.

It was the fascist Marcos dictatorship that institutionalized EJKs and other human rights violations as a means to silence the political opposition, including activists and members of the revolutionary underground. Historian Alfred McCoy cites 3,257 victims of such killings under the Marcos regime, earning a common term for it that is still in use today: “salvaging.”

Post Marcos, it was the Arroyo regime that blatantly implemented this Marcosian legacy. From 2001-2010, human rights group Karapatan documented 1,206 EJKs committed by state security forces and state-backed para-military and vigilante groups. In her State of the Nation Address, then President Arroyo even praised the notorious retired general Jovito Palparan, who admitted to having inspired the killings, for his excellent work.

In a 2008 report, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Philip Alston concluded that the EJKs under Arroyo were tolerated by the authorities and formed part of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) counter-insurgency program. He lamented that the killings were being done with impunity due to the government’s failure to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators.

Alston also looked into the killings attributed to the “Davao Death Squad” (DDS) and concluded that such vigilante killings, mostly of petty criminals, appeared to be officially sanctioned by the police and the city government then under Mayor Duterte.

While the number of EJKs decreased under former President Benigno Aquino III, they were by no means less alarming. In its 2015 year-end report, Karapatan claimed to have documented 307 victimes of EJKs from July 2010 to December 2015, including those killed in 17 massacres related to counter-insurgency operations.

To be sure, no government in its right mind would openly admit employing EJKs against its own people. However, EJKs as state policy have manifested itself in the following ways:

  1. Rampant and widespread summary executions and the impunity by which such killings are committed, especially by the police, military and state-backed vigilante groups.
  2. Systematic violation of due process rights and other civil and political liberties in the course of law enforcement or internal security operations, including witch hunting, public vilification and use of raw information to publicly accuse persons of a crime, making them vulnerable to attack;
  3. Massive failure to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators;
  4. Top officials not only tolerate but actually encourage the killings through the offer of rewards, support and protection to those who commit them.

EJKs under Duterte

What makes the EJK policy under Duterte different from the past are its targets and the breathtaking magnitude of the killings.

While criminals have long been the subject of salvagings by the police (as former Manila police chief Alfredo “Dirty Harry” Lim would cryptically say, “Dalhiin na sa Tondo ‘yan”), the rate by which drug users and pushers are killed today, either in police operations or vigilante killings, are unprecedented in Philippine anti-crime history. (READ: In numbers: The Philippines’ ‘war on drugs’)

An EJK is often justified by making it appear that the victim deserved it. During Arroyo’s time, the AFP came up with a powerpoint presentation titled “Knowing Thy Enemy” that labelled activists and their organizations as “communist front organizations” and “enemies of the state.” Local area commands would come up with an “Order of Battle,” a list lumping together names of activists, suspected NPA rebels and their sympathizers. Many of those on the list eventually ended up dead, missing, arrested, tortured or forced into “surrendering.” Military officials would later blame the communists themselves for the killings, saying it was the result of an internal purge.

STOP THE KILLINGS. Protesters in Manila

Nowadays we have that ubiquitous cardboard saying “Drug pusher, huwag tularan.” Like the activists during Arroyo’s time, suspected drug users and dealers are subject to public villification through “Oplan Tokhang.” They are forced into surrendering and admitting guilt on the basis of a nebulous list drawn up by the police and barangay officials. In fact, many of those who surrendered have succumbed to vigilante killings. Police say the killings are part of the drug syndicates’ effort to cleanse its ranks.

Alleged criminals killed in police operations are another disturbing matter. The rise in incidents of drug suspects reportedly killed while trying to resist arrest are too dramatic to be given a presumption of regularity. A number have telltale signs of a rubout as acknowledged by the police themselves.

What makes today’s EJKs particularly complicated is that the victims are considered undesirable members of society. Unlike activists or revolutionaries, drug addicts and pushers have no redeeming quality. These are not idealists being killed for exercising their constitutional rights or addressing legitimate social grievances. Druggies, for most people, are the scum of the earth that should be wiped out from existence.

Notice that when activists or rebels are summarily executed, their families and the communities that they have served immediately demand justice. Human rights groups, whose orientation has traditionally been, and for good reason, to protect the rights of political dissenters immediately investigate and act to prevent more killings. Networks of organizations are easily formed to hold the perpetrators to account.

On the other hand, when drug dealers are killed, their families hang their heads in shame and the community silently rejoices at the loss of another troublemaker. Everything is accepted as a consequence of the victims’ alleged illegal activities.

The challenges

If we are to stop the killings, the first challenge is for the public to denounce it. Like in so many issues, public opposition, or better yet outrage, is needed for the government to change its policy.

Unfortunately, whenever people are painted as rebels, terrorists or criminals, it becomes difficult to denounce their killing. The initial indifference when activists started getting killed during the Arroyo regime is similar to today’s ambivalence in the face of the killings of suspected drug addicts and pushers. Oftentimes it is only when the obviously innocent are killed – like children and nursing mothers – that the public is moved to denounce EJKs.

Denouncing the killings should not mean condoning the alleged illegal activities of its victims. What it should translate to is a demand for the police and military to follow the law and respect due process and human rights, so that criminals can be properly punished in accordance with what is in the law.

The second challenge is for the families and friends of the victims of EJKs to stand up and demand for justice. It is understandable that many of them would rather sweep the killings under the rug, considering the stigma of being linked to suspected drug criminals. However, it would be difficult for government agencies like the Commission on Human Rights, National Police Commission, Department of Justice, or human rights organizations and civil society organizations, to be taking up the cudgels for people who do not want to be helped in the first place.

The third challenge is for human rights groups to expand their advocacy to include those whose rights are violated on the basis of purely criminal, non-political offences. While the traditional political orientation of human rights advocacy is as important as ever, urgent attention is needed for atrocities committed in the course of Duterte’s war on drugs and other anti-crime campaigns. Such a challenge will not be easy, considering that most human rights groups are already so stretched in terms of resources and manpower in dealing with political and counter-insurgency related human rights violations.

Because the use of EJKs is an unwritten state policy in the Philippines, the only way to prevent it is for the people themselves to demand a stop to the practice. –


The author is a former representative of Bayan Muna in the House of Representatives. He first wrote this piece on his blog. We are republishing it with his permission.


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