Duterte’s new tack on drug killings: take the rap

Several times in the last four years, whenever he talked about his “war on drugs” carried out by the Philippine National Police and the thousands of killings attributed to it, President Duterte insistently denied the killings were state-sponsored, or that they had been instigated by him.

Last Monday night, however, addressing the people on state television, he made the following admission: “If there’s killing there, I’m saying I’m the one… you can hold me responsible for anything, any death in the execution of the drug war.

“If you get killed, it’s because I’m enraged by drugs. If that’s what I’m saying, bring me to court to be imprisoned. Fine, I have no problem. If I serve my country by going to jail, gladly.”

The Associated Press report on his speech, published in the Guardian last Tuesday, noted that the President’s admission was “among his clearest acknowledgment of the prospects that he could face a deluge of criminal charges for the bloody campaign he launched after taking office in mid-2016.”

Duterte, however, said that drug-related killings that did not happen during police operations should not be blamed on him, saying the deaths may have been set off by “[drug] gang rivalries or settling of scores.” He also scoffed at the allegation that the thousands of poor people killed in the war on drugs may constitute crimes against humanity. With a curse, he muttered, how could illegal drugs users be part of humanity?

However, the Commission on Human Rights reminded the President that it’s just as important for the authorities to investigate other drug-related deaths, as this is within state responsibility. “It’s not only the state’s duty to stop killings or [not to] kill, but also to prevent killings by a third party,” said Commissioner Karen Dumpit. “What is important is each and every killing must be accounted for.”

On this point, Amnesty International has noted that “the constant incitement from the highest levels of the government has created a climate in which widespread killings by unknown armed persons are not only simply tolerated, but actually encouraged.” The global watchdog added that its investigations show that in many instances, “there seems to be an even direct link between state authorities and ‘riding-in-tandem’ cases.”

It wasn’t the first time for Duterte to publicly own responsibility for what the human rights community – local and international – calls extrajudicial killings (EJKs) in his administration’s war on drugs. On Sept. 27, 2018, in another televised speech wherein he challenged anyone who criticized the way he was running the country, the President confessed: “My only sin is the extrajudicial killings.”

His full remark, as quoted by the Guardian, was: “I told the military, what is my fault? Did I steal even one peso? My only sin is the extrajudicial killings.”

Reacting to the remark, then Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams said, “This admission should erase any doubt about the culpability of the President.”

Duterte’s acknowledgment of his role in the EJKs, the Guardian noted, could give further weight to the ongoing preliminary examination by the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor of the thousands of killings carried out as part of his war on drugs.

In March 2018, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda confirmed that she was conducting a preliminary examination on allegations that Duterte had committed crimes against humanity in his brutal anti-drug crusade, both as the previous mayor of Davao and as president in 2016-2018. The Guardian cited a 77-page report (complaint) submitted to the ICC, which alleged that the death toll of the drug war had reached more than 8,000; some human rights groups had estimated the number was much higher at 12,000. At the time, the officially reported killings in what were billed as “legitimate” anti-drug police operations totalled 4,500, mostly small-time drug dealers and addicts. (A more recent report places the total deaths at 6,000-plus.)

Irritated by Bensouda’s move, Duterte arbitrarily withdrew the Philippines’ participation in the ICC. However, under ICC rules, the withdrawal didn’t negate the continuation of the investigation that started when the country was still a member of the body. Bensouda is said to wind up the first phase of her probe by yearend.

In his Sept. 27 speech, Duterte also said that he had no intention of ending his war on drugs any time soon. “It will not end,” he emphasized, adding, “As I have said, I will put on the table my life, the presidency. I can lose it any time. My honor.”

By way of justifying his admission of responsibility, Duterte in his speech last Monday added a new element to his war on drugs.

He conflated the illegal drug menace with the decades-long armed revolutionary movement led by the CPP-NPA, deeming both equally as threats to national security. “If this is allowed to go on and on, and if no decisive action is taken against them,” he stressed, “it will endanger the security of the state.”

Underlining his determined headlong pursuit of both the war on drugs and the intensified counterinsurgency campaign waged mainly by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, he added, “When you save your country from the perdition of the people like the NPAs and drugs, you are doing a sacred duty.”

Duterte’s seeming change of tune appears to harmonize with the tenor of the speech, his first, he delivered last month before the United Nations General Assembly. There, he called for “open dialogue and constructive engagement in the UN [as] the key to move forward” on the issues of human rights violations attributed to his administration; the moderate tone, earning him positive comments, was a departure from his previous railings against UN agencies and proceedings.

More obviously, he aims to blunt, if not to negate, the continuation of the ICC investigation by highlighting his willingness to be criminally charged before Philippine courts in relation to the EJKs in his war on drugs. By insinuating that the country’s criminal justice system works well – not dysfunctional in many aspects as generally perceived – he’s telling the ICC, per its mandate, that it has no solid ground to put him under its jurisdiction.

Can this tactic work? More pointedly, can the EJK victims ever get justice under the prevailing system?

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
October 24, 2020

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