THE United States is “cautiously optimistic” that the Philippines’ human rights record is improving as President Rodrigo Duterte presses on with his bloody anti-drug campaign that has claimed thousands of lives, an official said Tuesday.
Duterte has made a harsh anti-drug campaign the centerpiece of his administration, urging policemen to kill drug suspects and promising to protect them from prosecution.
The brutal drug war frayed ties with Washington under former President Barack Obama who criticized Duterte’s human rights record.
But the Trump administration has been noticeably less critical.
In a telephone briefing with reporters, James A. Walsh, a senior US drug official within the State Department, said there were signs of fewer extrajudicial killings.
“Many folks have been tracking the EJKs in the Philippines and the trends are going down so there is some encouragement that we are seeing in some of our human rights training working,” the deputy assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement told reporters.
“I would describe the United States as being cautiously optimistic in the trends when it comes to a good… appropriate way for a drug campaign,” he added.
The Palace welcomed the State Department statement but insisted there were no EJKs in the Philippines.
“While we welcome US State Department senior official James Walsh cautiously optimistic view of President Duterte’s successful anti-illegal drugs campaign, we maintain that there are no EJKs under the Duterte administration,” Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said.
Andanar even urged the US State Department to request data from the government to get a proper “assessment of this administration’s human rights records on real figures.”
“These real figures were published many times over and are available to the US State Department, if it wishes to have it,” he said.
The government says almost 4,000 drug suspects have been killed by law enforcement under Duterte. But human rights groups charge that thousands more have been murdered by shadowy vigilantes in what they say could be a crime against humanity.
The anti-drug campaign enjoys popular support while the fiery-tongued Duterte has rejected any criticism of his human rights record.
Walsh said that previously the United States had “reduced our support to the (Philippine) police because of some of the human rights concerns.”
He said the United States was still providing support in such areas as “drug demand reduction programs,” rule of law and boosting maritime security.
Relations with Manila have improved markedly since the days when Duterte labelled Obama a “son of a whore” for criticizing his drug campaign.
Duterte said in a telephone conversation in late-2016, then president-elect Trump told him that Manila was conducting its deadly drug war “the right way.”
But Amnesty International said the police must be held accountable for the many unlawful killings during the first round of Duterte’s blood war on drugs.
“Since President Duterte came to power, police have unlawfully killed thousands of people, the vast majority of them from poor and marginalised communities, in attacks so extensive and brutal they may well amount to crimes against humanity. Now that police are once more returning to the forefront of anti-drug operations, the government must make sure that there is no repeat of the bloodshed seen during the past 18 months,” James Gomez, Amnesty International’s director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said.
Gomez insisted that “independent investigations must cover each of the thousands of other unlawful killings, and all perpetrators, including those in positions of command, must be held to account.”
“The fact that the national police chief himself has warned that this next phase of anti-drug operations may not be ‘bloodless’ highlights the need for vigilance. What the country needs is a public health-based drug policy that respects human rights, the rule of law and justice for the families of victims,” he said.
“The Philippines neither can nor should try to solve its drug problems at gunpoint,” he added.
On wider regional drug enforcement issues, Walsh highlighted how synthetic opioids like fentanyl were a major focus for the US where a record 63,000 Americans fatally overdosed last year.
Much of the hugely powerful fentanyl — and even more potent carfentanil — hitting US streets came from China, he said, often shipped in the mail.
He said cooperation with Chinese authorities on the illicit trade had been “very good,” singling out moves by Beijing to restrict some key precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl and better scrutiny of postal packages sent to the US from China.
But he added: “There’s a lot of work to be done.” – With AFP