The AI report

Amnesty International’s special report,  “If you are poor you are killed”: Extrajudicial Executions in the Philippines’ “War on Drugs” provides details on how “police have systematically targeted mostly poor and defenseless people across the country while planting “evidence,” recruiting paid killers, stealing from the people they kill and fabricating official incident reports.” I wrote about the findings in this report a couple of weeks; in this column, I reflect on the process that AI underwent to produce its report, some additional findings, and the recommendations that are proposed by the reputable international organization.

During the conduct of the field interviews for this excellent report, AI observes that several witnesses declined to talk to Amnesty International, citing concerns for their safety or that of their family. Some witnesses and relatives of victims initially agreed to be interviewed but changed their minds, fearing reprisal by the police or other suspects involved in the killings. In Davao City, even lawyers and human rights defenders did not want to be interviewed, lest they are perceived as speaking against President Duterte’s violent anti-drug campaign. Further, the Report adds, “several witnesses and families who did speak to Amnesty International asked that their identities be concealed. Many relatives said they did not plan to file a complaint over the killing of their loved ones. As they struggle to make ends meet, the process of pursuing justice is both a scary notion and a costly endeavor. Local human rights defenders repeatedly cited the same issues—fear and cost—as the biggest obstacles for people who would otherwise seek justice for drug-related killings.”

Some more salient features of the AI Report delve on the conduct of police officers of drug-related operations, health hazards, the so-called voluntariness of surrenderees, and finally, its recommendations to key institutions related to the drug campaign.  

AI found that in the conduct of drug-related operations to the processing of crime scenes, police officers routinely act as if they are above the law. They are emboldened by the President’s promises to protect security forces from prosecution. Even the so-called vigilantes responsible for thousands of unsolved killings appear similarly unconcerned with prosecution. The Report also notes the difficulties which human rights defenders encounter in investigating the increasing drug related killings because of the scarcity of witnesses and complainants who are willing to pursue a case in court or cooperate in the investigations. An investigator with the Commissioner of Human Rights (CHR), for example, told Amnesty International that witnesses at times give statements but then never return to sign them; in other cases, witnesses refuse to even engage with the CHR. 

On the health hazards brought about by the drug war, the AI notes that—Since “surrendering” under Oplan Tokhang started, the majority of people who use drugs have indeed been processed through local programs. But existing interventions at the community level do not appear to be evidence-based, bringing into question the quality of the healthcare services they render. X x x The scarcity of needed health services is not only in viable treatment and rehabilitation facilities and programs, but also in trained specialists. Those who surrender are meant to undergo a first screening by barangay health workers. Experts question to what extent the process is carried out efficiently and whether staff even have the relevant medical knowledge.

AI also finds that when a person “surrenders,” the affidavit they sign states that this is a “voluntary surrender as a (pusher/user) of dangerous drugs.” It authorizes laboratory services to take urine samples and “conduct physical/medical examination for any purpose that may serve the Agency.” It further commits a signatory to being subjected to random drug testing and states, “I am willing to voluntarily submit myself for treatment and rehabilitation.” Despite the affidavit’s repeated use of the words “voluntary” and “voluntarily,” none of the people who use drugs, relatives of victims, experts, and activists interviewed by Amnesty International described “surrendering” and associated health testing—or even the community Zumba programs—as an act of free will. Given the widespread drug-related killings and climate of fear created by police actions and President Duterte’s rhetoric, many people who use drugs feel forced to submit to drug treatment, rehabilitation and testing. Such coercive measures constitute a violation to the rights to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health, to privacy and to bodily integrity, as well as to freedom from torture and other ill-treatment. 

Amnesty International expresses deep concern that these deliberate and widespread killings, which appear to be systematic, planned and organized by the authorities, may constitute crimes against humanity. In any case, there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that crimes under international and domestic law have been committed, including murder and extrajudicial executions, and thus that the state has an obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for these crimes under international law and for other gross violations of human rights. 

By way of recommendation, the AI offers a list directed to:   

President Duterte—which includes, among others, the immediate end to all police operations involving unnecessary or excessive use of force, in particular the use of lethal force during the arrest of suspected drug offenders; among others. 

The Senate and House of Representatives—which includes the urgent resumption of the Senate inquiry into human rights violations associated with the government’s anti-drug campaign, including related to extrajudicial executions; the links between the police and unknown armed persons; police payments for fatal shootings; and the impact on the right to health and other human rights, among others. 

The PNP and other law enforcement agencies—including, among others, the revocation or radical revision of Command Memorandum Circular No. 16—2016 and any other circulars or official documents that, at minimum, encourage or allow human rights violations in the context of anti-drug operations. Remove, in particular, all references to the “neutralization” of alleged drug offenders, and any other euphemisms that might be taken as a “license to kill.”

More recommendations are given to the Department of Justice, including the National Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the Prosecutor, the Department of Health, the Dangerous Drugs Board and international donors.    

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