GENEVA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people in the Philippines may have been killed in the war on drugs since mid-2016 amid “near impunity” for police and incitement to violence by top officials, the United Nations said on Thursday.
It said the drugs crackdown, launched by President Rodrigo Duterte after he won election on a platform of crushing crime, has been marked by police orders and high-level rhetoric that may have been interpreted as “permission to kill”.
In Manila, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the “rehashed claims” of impunity were unfounded.
“Law enforcers operate on strict protocols and transgressors of the law are made accountable,” he said in a statement.
Michelle Bachelet, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for independent investigations into the killings and said her office was ready to help credible domestic Philippine or international efforts to establish accountability.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has already opened a preliminary investigation.
“We hope that this report and the recommendations will kind of kick-start a system in the Philippines, to begin to address these violations and systemic problems more effectively,” Rory Mungoven, head of the Asia Pacific section in the Geneva-based U.N. rights office, told a news conference.
Asked whether the police killings might amount to crimes against humanity, Mungoven said: “That would require closer and more careful examination to reach that judgment.”
Major activist groups welcomed the report. Amnesty International called it a “damning indictment” of the war on drugs while Human Rights Watch said it showed an “almost total lack of accountability” and an “abject failure of domestic justice mechanisms to function”.
The U.N. report said that Philippine police, who do not need search or arrest warrants to conduct house raids, systematically force suspects to make self-incriminating statements or risk facing lethal force.
There has been only one conviction, for the 2017 murder of Kian delos Santos, a 17-year-old Manila student, it said. Three police officers were convicted after CCTV footage stirred public outrage, it said.
“Despite credible allegations of widespread and systematic extrajudicial killings in the context of the campaign against illegal drugs, there has been near impunity for such violations,” the report said.
Police say their actions in the anti-drug campaign have been lawful and that deaths occur in shootouts with dealers resisting arrest.
The report said some statements from the highest levels of the government had “risen to the level of incitement to violence”.
An “overarching focus on public order and national security, including countering terrorism and illegal drugs, (came) often at the expense of human rights, due process rights, the rule of law and accountability”.
The report will be presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council at its session opening on June 22.
Lawyers and activists raised the alarm this week over a new anti-terrorism bill pushed by Duterte, warning of draconian and arbitrary provisions that could be abused to target his detractors.
“The current act contains a very broad definition of terrorism and the new proposed Anti-Terrorism Act takes that even further,” said Ravina Shamdasani, the report’s lead author.
She said suspects could be held up to 24 days without a warrant.
Most victims in the drug war were young poor urban males, the report said. “The most conservative figure, based on government data, suggests that since July 2016, 8,663 people have been killed – with other estimates of up to triple that number.”
Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva with additional reporting by Karen Lema in Manila; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Nick Macfie