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Philippines: New administration must confront human rights crisis, ensure accountability

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Incoming President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. must end the catastrophic disregard for human life and dignity shown under the Duterte administration and prioritize the respect and protection of human rights, Amnesty International said a day ahead of his inauguration on 30 June.

“This is an opportunity to leave behind the violence and impunity we have seen under the Duterte administration, and develop and adopt policies to ensure justice, freedom and equality,” said Amnesty International’s Interim Regional Director Erwin van der Borght.

“We urge the Marcos administration to end extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detention and other violations committed in the name of the ‘war on drugs’, and adopt instead an approach to drugs grounded on respect for the rights to life, due process and health that thoroughly addresses the root causes of problems associated with drugs.”

“We also urge the new administration to commit to improving the human rights situation more broadly. This includes ending attacks against activists and human rights defenders and ensuring press freedom for independent news outlets such as Rappler, which is facing risks of being shut down a day before the inauguration in the latest blatant attempt to muzzle critical voices.”

‘Stop the killings’

Recent research carried out by Amnesty International found that there remain no genuine domestic avenues for accountability and justice for victims of the “war on drugs” and their families, despite promises made by the Duterte administration to the international community.

Follow-up interviews conducted by Amnesty International with families of those killed between 2016 and 2021 have found no one has been held accountable for the cold-blooded killing of their loved ones, and most families are unable to pursue justice out of fear of reprisals.

Interviews with 18 family members of drug-related killings revealed that wives and mothers have been unable to convince witnesses of unlawful killings to testify. One mother said, “I want to seek justice. But the question is how? I try to find peace and just leave it to God. We don’t have hints, no clues or leads on who did it. We don’t have any witnesses. All those who saw it remain tight-lipped because of fear. They’re scared they’ll be next if they talk.”

Others who have lost their loved ones to riding-in-tandem gunmen, many of whom are believed to be linked to police, have encountered no police investigations and no leads to pursue. “All you can see were their eyes. We can’t identify them–if they’re policemen or what. We don’t have hints on who we should press charges against,” said the mother of a victim who was allegedly on a drug “watch list.”

The wife of a victim and mother of seven children told Amnesty International that she was placing hope in the next administration: “I want to resolve my husband’s case. That’s my only wish, for us to achieve justice in any possible way. I’m hoping that our next President would make the killings stop, and that our lives would improve.”

No more ‘weak approach’ to justice

In 2018, the International Criminal Court opened an examination into suspected crimes against humanity in the context of the Philippines’ “war on drugs”.

Last year, the ICC announced it was proceeding to open an investigation after it established reasonable basis that crimes against humanity, torture and other ill-treatment have been committed in the Philippines.

In November 2021, the ICC suspended its investigation following a deferral request filed by the Duterte administration. But the Office of the Prosecutor has now asked the court to resume the probe.

“Given the complete lack of truth, justice and reparations for the victims, we urge the International Criminal Court to expedite its investigation,” van der Borght said. “We call on the government to cooperate with the Office of the Prosecutor, and to ensure the protection of victims and witnesses.”

“In the coming months, the Human Rights Council will also consider the situation in the Philippines. Its weak approach has emboldened the Duterte administration and has been a stain on the reputation of the Council.”

“With a change in government, Council members must use this moment to take stronger measures to investigate human rights violations over the past six years, with the aim of providing truth, justice and reparations to victims of the ‘war on drugs’ and other human rights violations.”

End crackdown on media and critics

President Marcos must also urgently address the ongoing crackdown on media, human rights defenders and other critical voices.

Two of the Duterte administration’s biggest critics – human rights defender and former senator Leila de Lima and journalist Maria Ressa – continue to face politically motivated charges for expressing their critical views of the government. De Lima has been held in arbitrary detention for the past five years, even after key witnesses recently retracted their allegations against her. Ressa’s news website Rappler is at risk of being closed down after the country’s Securities and Exchange Commission confirmed the revocation of its certificates of incorporation this week.

Political activists, human rights defenders, Indigenous Peoples, lawyers and others critical of the authorities have been targeted because they are accused of supporting the communist movement or because of their work to expose and condemn human rights violations. In the days leading up to the inauguration, access to websites alleged to be linked to the communist movement was blocked.

“We call on the government to end the ‘red-tagging’ of human rights defenders and political activists that has led to threats and attacks against them, including killings and arbitrary detention,” Amnesty’s van der Borght said.

“We also urge the government to ensure Senator de Lima is released immediately and unconditionally, and to drop the charges against both her and Ressa as a sign that the new administration will take human rights seriously. The next six years offer an opportunity for radically improving the country’s human rights situation, which should include meaningful measures to provide truth, justice and reparations to those who have suffered at the hands of the state.”