By Felipe Villamor
Human Rights Watch and other groups on Wednesday denounced Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision this week to put police back on the frontlines of his administration’s bloody war on illegal drugs.
Two months ago, the tough-talking Duterte had ordered the nation’s police force to pull back from counter-narcotics operations, amid widespread criticism that officers were involved in thousands of extrajudicial killings of drug suspects during his young presidency. On Tuesday, Duterte announced he was reviving an active role for police in the drugs war.
“The reactivation of police anti-drug operations officially requires police to first ‘consult’ with the PDEA [Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency]. But the government’s failure to hold anyone accountable for the thousands of drug war deaths make it highly unlikely that the PDEA will be able to restrain well-documented police abuses,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Kine said Duterte may have been emboldened by the unwillingness of fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and U.S. President Donald Trump to publicly challenge “the drug war slaughter,” at an ASEAN summit hosted by the Philippines last month.
Research by HRW indicated that police and other state agents were linked to extrajudicial killings tied to the drug war, Kine said. The vast majority of the more than 12,000 people gunned down in the campaign were poor, the rights watchdog said as it called for the U.N. “to investigate these killings and end the murderous police operations on urban poor communities.”
London-based Amnesty International also spoke out against reinstating police in an active role in the Philippine war on drugs.
“In returning police to his anti-drug operations yet again, President Duterte has consigned the poorest and most marginalized people in the Philippines to another catastrophic wave of violence, misery and bloodshed,” James Gomez, Amnesty’s regional director, said in a statement.
“Since the police were withdrawn from anti-drug operations in October, there has been a marked decline in the number of deaths resulting from these operations,” he added.
In the Philippines, The Movement against Tyranny, whose members are leading Filipino activists, said it planned to rally against the new presidential order on Sunday, international Human Rights Day.
“We are inviting the public to stand with us on Dec. 10 to uphold human rights and reject tyranny and dictatorship,” the group said.
Duterte gave the PDEA a lead role in October, when he ordered the national police to step back and play a supportive role by primarily forwarding intelligence to the agency.
It was not the first time that Duterte had pulled police back from the drug war. In January, he briefly suspended their participation after a South Korean businessmen was allegedly killed by officers who extorted money from his grieving widow.
Official police data puts the number of deaths linked to the drug war at slightly more than 3,800, far below an estimate of more than 12,000 by the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates. This higher number included victims of alleged vigilantes who left cardboard messages on bodies claiming responsibility.
Duterte said the figure was bloated, and he blamed the surge in killings to warring drug syndicates who were going after each other and pinning the blame on police.
On Tuesday, the presidential palace announced that Duterte had signed a memo ordering police, the military and the justice department’s investigative arm to resume providing active support to the PDEA in its counter-narcotics operations.
Duterte said the PDEA has been seriously hampered in performing its mandate by its lack of resources – including agents and operatives who could penetrate drug infected areas.
“The president’s memorandum order is likewise in response to a clamor from the public to restore to the PNP [Philippine National Police] and other law enforcement agencies the responsibility of providing active support to the PDEA,” the order said.
“There has been a notable resurgence in illegal drug activities and crimes since the PNP and other law enforcement agencies were directed to leave to the PDEA the conduct of all anti-illegal campaigns and operations,” it added.
On Wednesday, an unapologetic Duterte defended his decision, saying he would welcome international rights experts to observe how police would carry out the drug war.
“I will not answer it anymore except to say that my oath of office demands that I protect the Filipino people, and that the Republic of the Philippines is safe,” Duterte said in an expletive laden speech at a swearing-in ceremony for government officials. “That is the long and short of it.”
He said he hoped to end his country’s drug problem in “just another year” after failing to deliver on a campaign promise to stop the scourge during the first six months of his term, which began in June 2016.