Philippines: President Rodrigo Duterte could be held liable for crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch says

The body of a suspected drug dealer killed after an alleged shootout with police in Caloocan, Metro Manila, September 9, 2016. Human Rights Watch/ Carlo Gabuco
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MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte could be held liable for crimes against humanity for abetting an atmosphere of death that has killed thousands in his campaign to rid the country of illegal drugs, according to a report by an international human rights group.

In its report “License to Kill,” Human Rights Watch criticized the president and his senior government officials for what it said is their culpability in drug-related killings that have left more than 7,000 people dead.

Although there was is no evidence so far that the chief executive himself planned or ordered specific extrajudicial killings, the group believes that there are sufficient grounds for Duterte, Philippine National Police Director General Ronald Dela Rosa, Solictor General Jose Calida and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II to be held criminally responsible.

“Even if not directly involved in any specific operations to summarily execute any specific individual, President Duterte appears to have instigated unlawful acts by the police, incited citizens to commit serious violence, and made himself criminal liable under international law for the unlawful killings as a matter of command responsibility,” HRW said in its report.

“Other senior leaders of his administration have likewise made themselves criminally culpable for their alleged complicity in unlawful killings,” it also said.

HRW said that the president’s incessant calls encouraging the killing of alleged drug dealers and users showed a government policy to attack a specific civilian population.

It said that Duterte and his officials could be held liable for crimes against humanity, instigation of violence and murder and superior responsibility.

The group noted that the attacks had been systematic as shown by the “repeated, unchanging and continuous nature of the violence” demonstrated by police officers.

“With respect to possible crimes against humanity, the repeated calls by President Duterte encouraging the killing of alleged drug dealers and users is indicative of a government policy to attack a specific civilian population,” the report said. “Information on specific cases gathered by the media and non-governmental organizations including Human Rights Watch show this attack to be widespread.”

“Any killings of drug suspects by police with an awareness of such a policy or plan would amount to crimes against humanity, for which senior officials could be held responsible as a matter of superior responsibility.”

‘Duterte statements encourage vigilantes’

The group said that the president’s statements that have been interpreted by critics as encouraging the killings as part of the anti-drug campaign could be considered an act instigating the crime of murder.

“In addition, Duterte’s statements that seek to encourage vigilantes among the general population to commit violence against suspected drug users would constitute incitement to violence,” it said.

The group also said that the president could not bank on ignorance on the actions of his subordinates as a defense. It said that the doctrine of superior responsibility would impose criminal liability on officials for the illegal acts of their subordinates where the superior knew or had reason to know of the unlawful acts and failed to prevent or punish those acts.

“The unlawful killings being carried out by police forces ultimately under Duterte’s command have repeatedly been brought to his attention by the media, the United Nations, foreign governments. and domestic and international nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch. His public comments in response to those allegations are evidence that he knows about them,” HRW said.

The group also criticized Duterte for failing to take any step to prevent or punish those responsible for the killings. Instead the president encouraged these actions the group claimed.

HRW said: “As his continuing public statements make clear, he has discounted the illegality of police actions, showing no inclination or intent to investigate alleged crimes. As noted, since Duterte has taken office, not a single police officer has been arrested let alone prosecuted for their role in an alleged extrajudicial killing of a drug suspect.”

According to the group, Duterte’s statements when he was still a candidate for the presidency and since taking office have indicated his and his senior officials’ intent to use the country’s law enforcement agencies to engage in extrajudicial killings of suspects.

“These statements are only a sample of those made by Duterte and other senior officials during the presidential campaign and since taking office that indicate an intent to use the country’s law enforcement agencies to engage in extrajudicial killings of criminal suspects rather than treat them in accordance with Philippine and international law,” the group said in its report.

‘Dela Rosa, Calida, Aguirre also liable’

The report also delved into the criminal responsibility of Dela Rosa, Calida and Aguirre.

It said that while the president himself led calls for the use of violence in his drug war, these senior government officials also urged similar killings, effectively blocking meaningful efforts to investigate police killings of suspected drug dealers and users.

The report said Dela Rosa, a longtime Duterte ally and his police chief during his similar drug war when he was still mayor of Davao City, encouraged vigilante killings against drug dealers.

“On August 27, 2016, he told a gathering of thousands of surrendering drug users: ‘Let us help each other. But don’t forget those drug lords. They know where they will go. You want me to kill them? I’ll kill them. You can them [also] because you are the victims. Pour gasoline on their houses and burn them. Show your anger,’” the report narrated.

The chief of the national police also attacked the Senate’s effort to probe into the killings as “legal harassment.” He claimed that such investigations would “dampen the morale” of the police.

The country’s top government lawyer, Calida also excoriated the Senate effort and branded it as an effort to get “media mileage.”

Aguirre, the Justice secretary, meanwhile refused to investigate the deaths in the wake of the government’s war on drugs.

He also dismissed without investigation police involvement in extrajudicial killings and claimed that police officers only killed armed suspects. He also blamed many of the deaths on drug dealers themselves because they were afraid that their subordinates would squeal on them.

HRW also warned that even if government agents suspected to be involved were not prosecuted or given immunity by the president they could still be held liable by international courts, including the International Criminal Court.

“Foreign courts acting on the basis of universal jurisdiction or international criminal tribunals, including the International Criminal Court, are in no way bound by domestic grants of immunity, and may prosecute protected wrongdoers as well as officials implicated on grounds of superior responsibility,” it said.


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