Philippine Daily Inquirer / March 03, 2021
Can it be that the administration is now seeing the horror of President Duterte’s war on drugs? The video message of Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Feb. 24 to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) suggested as much, appearing to prove that the Philippines’ legal and judicial systems are working the way they should, cognizant of the principles of accountability vis-à-vis violations of the law and of human rights.
Guevarra presented the results of a review of the war on drugs at the UNHRC’s ongoing 46th session, citing critical flaws in the President’s centerpiece drive. (In apparent response to global expressions of outrage over the antidrug campaign, Guevarra announced in June 2020 the creation of a government panel to review police operations in which deaths occurred.)
He said half of the operations reviewed showed a failure to follow standard protocols in inter-agency coordination and even in the processing of crime scenes. Regarding the police’s ubiquitous “nanlaban” narrative — in which ostensibly armed drug suspects are killed in the course of resisting arrest—he said the recovered weapons were not subjected to requisite ballistic examination and other tests as well as ownership verification.
Those are surprising remarks from the justice secretary who has been uncritical of the antidrug campaign that continues to elicit outrage both here and abroad. The Philippine National Police counts almost 6,000 dead in those operations in the past four years but human rights groups say the number can be at least four times higher.
In July 2019, the UNHRC adopted a resolution calling for a comprehensive report on the human rights situation in the Philippines. In June 2020, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a report documenting widespread rights violations and persistent impunity in the country. And in December 2020, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court cited “reasonable basis” to believe that crimes against humanity had taken place under the Duterte administration. (Angered by what he deemed interference in the country’s affairs, the President withdrew the Philippines from the ICC in March 2019.)
Yet, while initially surprising, Guevarra’s remarks are hardly novel. That standard protocols were ignored by law enforcers is a constant finding in independent inquiries and a common experience of residents of mostly impoverished communities where these operations took place. And to belie the “nanlaban” narrative as well as boost suspicion of planted evidence, the OHCHR cited police reports in which cops repeatedly recovered guns bearing the same serial numbers from different victims in different sites. As though, the weary observer may conclude, they didn’t even care if the modus operandi were found suspect.
Guevarra told the UNHRC that relevant agencies were working on the recommended prosecution of policemen; he made no mention of the accountability of high officials. Palace mouthpiece Harry Roque crowed that the panel’s work “is proof to the whole world that contrary to the claims of our critics …we are in discharge of our state obligation to investigate and prosecute violations of the right to life.” He is blind to the fact that of 4,583 inquiries done by the PNP’s Internal Affairs Service from July 2016 to May 2019, only one case, involving the teenager Kian delos Santos, resulted in the murder conviction of three cops.
The Commission on Human Rights said it had no participation in the review despite the government’s promise of close cooperation with it.
Commenting on Guevarra’s remarks, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said: “These killings were baked into the ‘drug war’ model from the start, with the police prepared to act because they knew that not only can they get away with it, but that they’re supposed to get away with it.”
Chilling and unforgettable were the President’s words on the killing of 32 drug suspects in “one time, big time” police operations in Bulacan on Aug. 15, 2017. He found it encouraging, an efficient use of excessive force: “Maganda ’yun,” he told members of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption in a speech. “Makapatay lang tayo ng mga another 32 every day, then maybe we can reduce what ails this country.”
Well, not quite. For all the blood spilled, for all the killings that have grievously impacted thousands upon thousands of families and earned global censure for the Philippines, the drug problem remains. The unresolved smuggling of “shabu” worth billions of pesos festers.
“Let’s not pretend anymore,” said Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a former PNP chief. “The drug war really failed because the drugs are still there. … Sad to say, the government’s antidrug efforts have not succeeded.”