Confronting extrajudicial killings under Duterte

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.