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How an Official’s Admission that Police Are Slaying Suspects Will Change the Philippine Anti-Drug Campaign

Former chief of the Philippine National Police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (PNP-CIDG) and now Mayor Benjamin Magalong, right, talks to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra at the resumption of the Senate probe on the release of hundreds…

A justice official’s statement that the Philippine National Police have intentionally killed suspects in a 5-year anti-drug crackdown under President Rodrigo Duterte will lessen the use of deadly force as officials hope to head off growing international outrage, analysts believe.

In one of the bolder admissions of shoot-to-kill orders against suspects, Philippine Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 24 that law enforcement personnel had flaunted “standard protocols” in most drug busts.

“The fact that you have the secretary of justice saying there are miscarriages of justice is actually an indictment of the drug war itself,” said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at University of the Philippines Diliman.

The campaign won’t lighten up right away, she said, but the justice official’s revelation will reignite international pressure on the Duterte government, while Congress and the cabinet in Manila could step up their own investigations into irregular policing.

Philippine officials hope to calm ever-suspicious U.N. leaders in light of an International Criminal Court prosecutor’s finding and a rights council resolution pledging to help the country build capacity, said Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the Manila-based Bagong Alyansang Makabayan alliance of leftist causes.

The secretary’s comments are seen too as overtures to the U.N. and to the international court.

“We have to show the courts or the legal processes in the Philippines are somehow working to address the concerns of the families whose members were killed,” Reyes said. “Now how far that would go, we don’t know yet.”

The council passed a resolution in October calling for “technical assistance and capacity-building” related to human rights in the Philippines. The U.N. human rights high commissioner said in a mid-2020 statement that possibly more than 25,000 people had been slain during the drug campaign.

Two months later, International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda found "reasonable basis" to believe the anti-drug campaign had sparked crimes against humanity. She is exploring whether to investigate formally what’s happening in the Philippine justice system.

The justice secretary told the U.N. council his panel had examined “available records in certain key areas and cities” where most drug enforcement deaths occurred. In more than half of the records reviewed, he said, law enforcement agents did not “follow standard protocols” in their handling of crimes.

Law enforcement agents in “many” cases said drug crime suspects had resisted arrest or tried to draw a weapon to fight back, Guevarra said last week. But those cases lack examinations of any weapons or proof of their ownership, he said.

Just three cases have led to known convictions of authorities, Reyes said.

New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in a statement Thursday the Philippine justice secretary’s “admission” of police malfeasance gives more cause for the U.N. council to investigate Duterte’s “abusive anti-drug campaign”.

“I think it will mark a turning point in the way that the international community engages with the Philippines on this,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson told the VOA Saturday. “And therefore, I think we will see a more determined pursuit of this issue by the Human Rights Council.”

Duterte, elected in 2016, has promised a drug-free Philippines and has won high approval ratings since then. Many common Filipinos say they feel relatively safe during his presidency because of the crackdowns on crime.

The tough-talking president had lashed out early in his term at U.N. officials and Western governments for criticizing the anti-drug campaign. He must step down next year due to term limits.