Summary, "Human Rights Challenge, Responding to Extrajudicial Killings in the Drug War," March 16 2017, UN in Vienna

Summary of the side event at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, 16 March 2017: "Human Rights Challenge: Responding to Extrajudicial Executions in the Drug War"

prepared by Alison A. Smith, Counsel and Director of Criminal Justice Program, No Peace Without Justice,

1. Side event overview

Since his rise to power, President Duterte has engaged in an infamous "war on drugs" that has led to the extrajudicial killing of thousands of alleged drug users and dealers. More than 7,000 people have been killed since President Duterte started his anti-illegal drug campaign after taking office in May 2016. Despite increasing criticism from international and national human rights organizations, he repeatedly expressed his delight at the deadly results of his campaign and emphasized that the war on drugs will continue until his term ends in 2022.

Interviews with witnesses and open source research conducted by Amnesty International highlights the cruelty of the war on drugs and its far-reaching social effects, to which mostly people from poor neighborhoods fall victim. There is increasing reason to believe that the extrajudicial killings follow a certain pattern or policy. The rhetoric of President Duterte openly dehumanizes drug users, encouraging violence and promising impunity for anyone involved in the killing of drug users. In light of such findings, the possibility of investigations by the International Criminal Court, to which the Philippines acceded in 2011, are being discussed within the international human rights community.

The side event at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs was organized by DRCNet Foundation and cosponsored by the AFEW International, Associazione Luca Coscioni, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, Drug Policy Alliance, India HIV/AIDS Alliance, Liberal International, No Peace Without Justice, Persaudaraan Korban Napza Indonesia and Union C (Nepal). Moderated by David Borden, Executive Director of DRCNet Foundation (also known as StoptheDrugWar.org), and Marco Perduca, former senator of the Italian Radical Party, the event opened the floor to different perspectives on the war on drugs, including the Vice President of the Philippines, speakers from human rights organizations and Philippine human rights bodies and representatives of the Philippine government. As might be expected, the opinions of the government vs. other presenters'' differed very strongly.

Speakers representing human rights organizations embedded the ongoing war on drugs in a global trend of authoritarian and populist leadership, pointing to retrogressive developments in human rights and democracy standards. Calling for an immediate stop to the killings, there was agreement to condemn the war on drugs as an unacceptable and inhumane approach to tackle drug problems which may constitute as crimes against humanity according to international criminal law. If the Philippine justice system continuously fails to take up efficient investigations in that matter, participants expressed their support for an intervention by the International Criminal Court. Further major criticisms referred to the lack of transparent data and figures, the non-collaboration of police forces and judicial harassments or threats against those denouncing the human rights implications of the war on drugs.

As a response, the Philippine Government justified its war on drugs as a legitimate campaign that is necessary to serve its democratic duty and address the drug menace that threatens the well-being of its society. Claiming that many killings are occurring out of self-defense in legitimate police operations and that the implementation of comprehensive public health measures are equally part of the anti-drug campaign, the Philippine Government emphasized the need to put the war on drugs into context. The government assured that murders committed by unknown assailants would be investigated and stressed its respect for human rights and social justice.

Regional perspectives and experiences shared at the side event helped to illustrate the political dimension of the Philippines war on drugs. Drug trade and consumption seems to be a topic of high concern to the public and tends to be politicized by authoritarian-leaning governments. Other than investigating and prosecuting the extra-judicial killings that have taken place within the war on drugs, it is therefore crucial to come up with an alternative solution that takes the fears of Philippine voters seriously. With that in mind, participants from human rights organizations called upon the international community to collaborate in adopting a comprehensive public health approach and to help fighting illegal drug trade in the region.

2. Side event summary

In his introductory remarks, moderator David Borden (DRCNet) drew attention to the global rise of populist and authoritarian leadership. The tendency to politicize tensions among different identity groups has challenged the fulfilment of international human rights standards, increasing violence, hatred and anti-democratic movements all over the world. In this context, Mr. Borden pointed out that it is the most urgent priority to not let the brutal Philippine war on drugs become a model for other leaders. He went on to emphasize the importance of human rights leaders that dare to speak out against President Duterte's anti-drug campaign. In that respect, Mr. Borden especially thanked Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo and the Philippine Commission of Human Rights (CHRP) Chair Chito Gascon.

Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo (video message) clearly condemned the ongoing war on drugs and referred to the 7,000 killings that have taken place since July 2016 as "summary executions." The government's brutal anti-illegal drug campaign fails to address the very nature of the country's drug problem: The consumption and circulation of drugs is a complex public health issue, closely linked to poverty and social inequality. Consequentially, those most affected are residents of Manila's poorest neighborhoods who are not only mourning the loss of family members but are also subjected to the discriminatory and arbitrary behavior of police officials. Reportedly, people searched in drug raids were denied search warrants because they were living as squatters and lacked proof of property. Family members of alleged drug users who were listed by the police but could not be found were arrested as substitutes. As a result, the relationship to police forces has deteriorated significantly, undermining the overall feeling of safety and trust in authorities among the Philippines' largest communities. Instead of increasing security and eliminating criminality, Vice President Robredo predicted that the war on drugs will create new issues of public concern requiring legal and psychological support for affected individuals.

Vice President Robredo lamented that the anti-illegal drug campaign lacks transparency, particularly in respect of reliable statistics on the actual extent of the Philippine's drug problem and the lack of investigative efforts. Around 500 cases of extrajudicial killings have been filed with the Philippine Commission of Human Rights (CHRP) but until today none of these cases has undergone further investigations by the Department of Justice (DOJ). She further recalled the country's historical achievements, fighting for democratic values and respect for human rights under martial law imposed by former dictator Marcos. Against this background, she appealed to the Filipino people to watch carefully the human rights implications of the anti-illegal drug campaign and other happenings such as the potential reintroduction of the death penalty and the lowering of criminal liability to the age of nine years. The Vice President made it clear that in her opinion, a holistic public health policy, including educational and psychological interventions, can be the only approach consistent with respect for people's dignity and human rights to tackle the Philippines drug problem.

Lousewies van der Laan (video message), former leader of the Dutch D66 Liberal Party and spokeswoman on justice in the Dutch and European Parliament, reinforced the argument of previous speaker Vice President Robredo that drug use cannot be seen in isolation from complex social and health dynamics. As former chief of staff of the President of the International Criminal Court, she recalled the strong participation of active Philippine civil society organizations that she experienced during preparations for the country's ratification of the Rome Statute in 2011. The then Philippine president Benigno Aquino explained his decision to ask the country's Senate to ratify the Rome Statute by saying that the high number of Filipino nationals living and working abroad could only be protected if the Philippines contributed to setting a high international standard of human rights and rule of law. With that in mind, Ms. Van der Laan stressed the importance of Philippine civil society and motivated politicians to stand united against human rights abuses in the Philippines.

Abhisit Vejjajiva (video message), is the former Prime Minister of Thailand and Chairman of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD), a network of regional liberal and democratic parties which cosponsored the side event. In line with previous speakers, Mr. Vejjajiva criticized the Philippine government for ongoing human rights abuses within its anti-drug campaign. This brutal approach to tackle drug related issues risks having a profound negative impact on other countries in the region, of which Thailand has already engaged in similarly cruel anti-drug policies in the past, and Cambodia is potentially at risk for. In order to end ongoing violence and find adequate responses for the region's drug problem, the political dimensions of such anti-drug campaigns need to be addressed first. A majority of the region's population feel that drugs are a significant problem in their societies and are not adequately addressed. As a consequence, despite the high number of killings, such anti-drug campaigns are widely supported by the public, encouraging and legitimizing the radical approach of authoritarian governments. Mr. Vejjajiva argued that both among societies and political leaders, there needs to be more awareness of the negative implications such drug wars can have. He cited former President of Colombia Cesar Gaviria, who has argued that anti-drug policies in his country have created new problems: driving the drug trade underground, preventing users from seeking rehabilitation services and increasing corruption among police forces and state officials.

In order to stop the killings in anti-drug campaigns and reduce political support for authoritarian leaders, those advocating for human rights and the rule of law need to come up with a credible alternative solution to tackle drug issues. In this regard, the international human rights community has both to continue its pressure on authoritarian governments and convey a strong message to the wider public, raising awareness that extrajudicial killings are not the right approach to address drug issues but are illegal and anti-democratic in their very nature.

Alison Smith, Director of the International Criminal Justice Program with No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ), reported on the international criminal law implications of the Philippine war on drugs. Having acceded to the Rome Statute in 2011, potential war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide taking place in the Philippines can be investigated and prosecuted by the ICC. Since the Philippine war on drugs is not related to a conflict and does not include a specific intent to eliminate a protected group, war crimes and genocide do not fall within the scope of this analysis. Instead, based on NPWJ's research of open-source information, Ms. Smith concluded that crimes against humanity have been committed since the war on drugs started in May 2016. The killings within the Philippine anti-drug campaign do not appear to be justified by law and therefore constitute an act of murder, which is the first to be prohibited under crimes against humanity in the Rome Statute. The context of this act, which is that it needs to take place as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population pursuant to a state or organizational policy to commit the attack, is equally shown in the Philippine case. The large number of extra-judicial killings within the war on drugs aggregate to an attack, which international criminal law has interpreted as the commission of multiple acts prohibited within the context of crimes against humanity. Furthermore, international criminal law does not require a formal or written plan to prove that crimes against humanity are committed on the basis of a state or organizational policy. The systematic nature of the killings in the Philippine war on drugs and promises that perpetrators will enjoy immunity from jurisdiction infer that there is either a state policy or a general agreement to allow such attacks to take place. In the light of the above, Ms. Smith appealed to the Philippine authorities to stop extrajudicial killings and fulfill their international obligations by investigating and prosecuting these crimes against humanity.

Chito Gascon, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights of the Republic of the Philippines (CHR), associated the brutal war on drugs directly with Rodrigo Duterte's presidency and stressed that the number and pace of killings has reached an alarming level, which so far has been unprecedented in the ASEAN region. According to Mr. Gascon, among the close to 8,000 deaths, one third were killed by police officials and justified for the purpose of self-defense in ostensibly lawful police operations. The other two thirds were supposedly killed by unknown assailants and have been labelled as "deaths under investigation" (DUIs) by government authorities. In reference to the lack of national investigation efforts highlighted by previous speakers, Mr. Gascon reported that so far no police officer has been charged. Instead, the self-defense argument appears to be used to circumvent longstanding internal police regulations for investigating the use of firearms in operations. For instance, previous policies imposed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) that required further examination of cases involving the use of force for the purpose of self-defense in front of a court, appear to have been abandoned under the Duterte administration. However, Mr. Gascon pointed out that he still believes the Philippine justice system will be able to function if serious investigations are initiated soon and authorities are willing to cooperate with the CHR. In that respect, he reported on the non-cooperation of the police in about 500 CHR-led investigations, ignoring requests for access to documentation. In line with previous speakers, Mr. Gascon confirmed the possibility of ICC proceedings and urged the Philippine Government to instead stop the killings itself, to properly investigate the killings, and to approach the drug problem through a "harm reduction" public health approach.

Sulpicio Confiado, Deputy Chief of Mission, Counsel General and Deputy Permanent Representative from the Republic of the Philippines, read out a statement of the Philippine Government. Based on data released by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, the government conceded that there is a need for further investigations but clearly dissociates itself from killings carried out by vigilante groups or syndicates, which the government claims are being investigated as murders. Mr. Confiado further clarified that this particularly applies to a small number of suspicious cases. In the opinion of the Philippine Government, the international community unfairly generalizes the high number of deaths as extrajudicial killings. These figures need to be put into perspective as some killings are causalities, occurring in legitimate police operations, and a good percentage are not drug related at all.

The Philippine Government strongly rejected accusations made by the international community and defended its anti-drug campaign as a necessary and politically legitimate approach. Based on section four of the Philippine Constitution, the government regards the war on drugs as a primary duty to protect the Philippine society from the dangers that drug consumption and trafficking pose to the well-being of society. According to the Philippine Government, the voluntary surrender of 100,000 people proved the dimension of this drug problem, which is affecting an estimated three million citizens. Eliminating the drug menace is a precondition to turn the very high percentage of young citizens into healthy members of society, allowing them to grow up in safe environments and fully enjoy human rights.

The statement further argued that the perspective of the international community is one-sided. The government claims to complement the anti-drug campaign with a holistic public health approach, promoting and implementing preventive, educational, rehabilitation and reintegration measures. This is embedded in the overall socioeconomic agenda of the current administration, whose primary goal is the alleviation of poverty. In this regard, Mr. Confiado listed successfully implemented reforms aiming to eradicate social inequality by addressing the needs of rural populations. The success of community based measures, involving communities in implementing rehabilitation centers and planning anti-drug strategies, are further proof of the government's respect for the dignity of marginalized social groups.

In the name of the Philippine Government, Mr. Confiado asked the international community to accept the anti-drug campaign as a legitimate and necessary step to serve and protect its population. He also called for more international collaboration and support in fighting the drug trade. The government statement ended by quoting the President' Duterte's State of the Nation address after his election, emphasizing that the government will fully commit to human rights, social justice and development. However, at the same time the quote insisted that international opinion will not limit the government's actions and decisions in protecting its citizens and promoting the well-being of society.

Following the speakers' statements, concerns and questions regarding available protection mechanisms for human rights defenders (Daniel Joloy, Amnesty International) and the potential powers of the Vice President's Office to oppose abuses, were raised. In reference to an earlier comment made by Marco Perduca, co-moderator and former Italian senator, who expressed his concern that those criticizing the war on drugs are harassed and curtailed in their right to freedom of speech, CHR Chair Chito Gascon reaffirmed the deteriorating situation for human rights defenders in the Philippines. Those opposing President Duterte's policy risk being harassed, threatened, intimidated and prosecuted. In that respect, Mr. Gascon referred to the recent arrest and imprisonment of former Minister of Justice and former CHR Chair Leila De Lima as a prominent example. In his opinion, the testimonies of long term convicts suddenly accusing Senator De Lima of being involved in drug circulation confirm the suspicion of trumped up charges and fabricated evidence. Mr. Perduca strongly condemned the incarceration of Senator De Lima and noted the European Parliament had taken up a resolution on this matter. Mr. Gascon reported that Vice President Robredo appears to face similar challenges due to her outspoken criticism of the anti-illegal drug campaign. However, the Vice President's powers are very limited as long as President Duterte knows that 80 % of the population approve of his job performance and that a majority in Congress support his policies.

A last comment was made by Earl Saavedra, Deputy Executive Director of the Dangerous Drugs Board of the Republic of the Philippines, who presented updated figures on the war on drugs released by the Philippine National Police (PNP). Between July 1, 2016 and January 29, 2017, 21 law enforcers were administratively charged and another 21 criminally charged. During law enforcement operations involving DUI matters, 11 officials were charged. Fifty-four officials were charged related to operations aiming to arrest drug traffickers. Another 43 law enforcers were charged in regard to President Duterte's pronouncement to surrender and 18 within his call for voluntary surrender. Mr. Saavedra reaffirmed the government's holistic approach to preventing drug use and assured the collaboration of his institution, offering to share whatever data is available.

 

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