NZ backs UN move to investigate Philippines' war on drugs

The UN Human Rights Council voted on Thursday to set up an investigation into mass killings during Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's so-called 'war on drugs' - a step that activists said was long overdue.

Duterte's government says that around 6600 people have been killed by police in shootouts with suspected drug dealers since he was elected in 2016 on a platform of crushing crime. Activists say the death toll is at least 27,000.

The first-ever resolution on the Philippines, led by Iceland, was adopted by a vote of 18 countries in favour and 14 against, including China, with 15 abstentions, including Japan.

"This is not just a step toward paying justice for the thousands of families of victims of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, but it is also a message that we collectively send out to those who have praised President Duterte," said Ellecer "Budit" Carlos of the Manila-based rights group iDefend.

"This war on drugs, as we have repeatedly said, it's a sham war," he told a news briefing in Geneva.

New Zealand signed onto the resolution.

"Our report shows that the Philippine Government's 'war on drugs' is effectively a war on the poor," said Amnesty International Aotearoa spokesperson Annaliese Johnston. 

"The financial and emotional costs on the families left behind is mammoth. The victims are often the main breadwinners so their death pushes their family deeper into poverty. 

"The mother of a 30-year-old man who was shot dead by police last year broke down in tears when she recalled the circumstances of her son's death, 'They killed him like an animal,' she told us." 

Filipino activists say tens of thousands are being killed as police terrorise poor communities, using cursory drug "watch lists" to identify suspected users or dealers, and executing many of them under the guise of sting operations.

Rodrigo Duterte.
Rodrigo Duterte. Photo credit: Reuters

Myca Ulpina, a three-year-old killed on June 29 near Manila, was among the latest and youngest known victims of the crackdown. Police say her father Renato had used his daughter as a human shield.

"The people who're being murdered are 'suspected', and this is the key term here, they have not been found guilty in a court of law," said Johnston. "These are people who've been placed on unreliable 'drug watch lists' with no way of getting their names removed. There is also total impunity for these killings, no one is held accountable and police and others are free to kill without consequence." 

The Philippines delegation lobbied hard against the resolution, which asks national authorities to prevent extrajudicial killings and cooperate with UN human rights boss Michelle Bachelet, who is to report her findings in June 2020.

'One-sided'

Philippines Ambassador Evan Garcia, speaking after the vote, read a statement by his foreign ministry rejecting the resolution as "politically-partisan and one-sided". His country is among the council's 47 members.

Garcia said the Duterte administration was committed to upholding justice, adding: "We will not tolerate any form of disrespect or acts of bad faith. There will be consequences, far-reaching consequences."

Laila Matar of Human Rights Watch criticised his comments.

"It was quite clear that they threatened consequences for those who had supported the resolution, which in turn makes us concerned for the many human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists on the ground," she told the briefing.

Duterte, asked by reporters in Manila whether he would allow access to UN rights officials to investigate, said: "Let them state their purpose and I will review it."

Reuters