|Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte has presided over a war on drugs that has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings, the UN report found. Photograph: Aaron Favila/AP|
Tens of thousands of people may have been killed during Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines, according to a damning UN report that warns of “impunity” and calls for an independent investigation into abuses.
The anti-narcotics crackdown in the Philippines, launched by the president after he won the 2016 election on a promise to rid the country of drugs, appears to have resulted in “widespread and systematic” extrajudicial killings, the report says.
It adds that rhetoric by the highest officials has potentially emboldened police to behave as though they have “permission to kill”.
The report, the UN’s strongest condemnation yet of recent abuses in the country, says there is “an overarching focus on public order and national security”, often at the expense of human rights, due process, the rule of law and accountability.
“Despite credible allegations of widespread and systematic extrajudicial killings in the context of the campaign against illegal drugs, there has been near impunity for such violations,” the report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says.
Since mid-2016 in the Philippines there has been only one conviction for the killing of a drug suspect in a police operation. The report says police regularly raid homes and private property without warrants, and systematically force suspects to make self-incriminating statements or risk lethal force.
Witnesses, family members, journalists and lawyers said that they feared for their safety and described a situation where “the practical obstacles to accessing justice within the country are almost insurmountable”.
The government denies there is a policy to kill people who use drugs and states that all deaths occur during legitimate police operations.
Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, described the testimonies as heartbreaking. “People who use or sell drugs do not lose their human rights,” she said.
The report also raises alarm over the vilification of dissent, adding that attacks against perceived critics are being “increasingly institutionalised and normalised in ways that will be very difficult to reverse”.
The government has increasingly filed criminal charges against people criticising the government online, it says, including by using Covid-19 special powers laws. The UN Human Rights Office also documented that between 2015 and 2019 at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists and trade unionists were killed in relation to their work.
The report says it could not verify the number of extrajudicial killings during the anti-drugs crackdown without further investigation. It says government figures indicate at least 8,663 people have been killed, but some estimates put the toll at triple that number.
Amnesty described the report as “a vital step” towards accountability.
There are growing calls among rights groups for the UN Human Rights Council – which is expected to hold a session on the Philippines this month – to order a further independent inquiry into abuses in the Philippines, as it has done in Myanmar and Venezuela.
“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.