The office documented the deaths of at least 248 human rights defenders, legal professionals, journalists and trade unionists between 2015 and 2019. The UN demanded that politically-motivated charges targeting these groups be dropped.
Even the spread of the coronavirus had not stopped killings of drug suspects and rights defenders during the first four months of 2020.
“Charges were filed against political opponents and NGO workers, including for sedition and perjury. A major media network [ABS-CBN] was forced to stop broadcasting after being singled out by the authorities. Red-tagging [accusing a person or group of communist allegiances] and incitement to violence have been rife, online and offline,” the report stated.
“The response to COVID-19 has seen the same heavy-handed security approach that appears to have been mainstreamed through the ramped-up drug war and counter-insurgency imperatives. While important measures were taken to mitigate the pandemic’s economic impact on vulnerable communities, threats of martial law, the use of force by security forces in enforcing quarantines, and the use of laws to stifle criticism have also marked the government’s response.”
In ordinary circumstances such a damning report – which effectively amounts to public censure by other national governments, under the auspices of the United Nations – could be expected to embarrass the Philippine government.
But Duterte, a populist authoritarian leader, was elected promising an all-out war on drugs and drug users and the UN report is unlikely to prompt a re-think of his policies, despite the international opprobrium.
The UN’s team leader, Ravina Shamdasani, said the report was a “fair and objective assessment of the human rights situation in the Philippines”.
While she acknowledged the report was heavily critical at times of the government’s drug laws, Shamdasani said the government had willingly engaged with the United Nations.
“We sent them two extensive lists of questions and they responded with extensive, detailed responses… we are hopeful that this engagement can continue and that we can carry forward the recommendations of this report.”
A 2015 survey found that approximately 1.8 million people in the Philippines — 2.3 per cent of the population — were drug users.
Nevertheless, the UN made a lengthy series of recommendations in its report, including an end to the extra-judicial killings and violent targeting of drug offenders, a comprehensive review of the country’s drugs policies including mandatory sentencing and the possible decriminalisation of certain drugs.
It also recommended that state-backed paramilitary groups, which are responsible for some killings, be disarmed and disbanded, and for an independent body to be appointed to investigate the unsolved murders.
Comment was sought from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.
Ahead of the report’s release, its diplomatic mission emailed a letter from ambassador Evan Garcia to reporters in Geneva saying the Duterte government “has always maintained a positive approach to addressing claims and allegations and investigating claims of violations, on the basis of facts”.
Separately, Duterte secured the passage of a new anti-terrorism law on Thursday, Philippine lawmakers have approved a bill allowing warrantless detention and wiretapping of suspected terrorists, which the country’s human rights commission said could curb expressions of dissent and other freedoms. It also includes the creation of an anti-terror council that would determine what is terrorism and order arrests without a warrant — a function usually reserved for the courts.
The report noted the then proposed law as “worrying”.
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.