By Carlos H. Conde
Researcher, Asia Division
Human Rights Watch
“Drug war”-style lawlessness in the Philippines may be spiraling out of control.
Philippine authorities said the police and military killed 14 people during anti-crime operations over the weekend in the central Philippine province of Negros Oriental. The circumstances of the deaths are unclear, and the government has provided few details.
The police claim that they had search warrants for illegal weapons and that they killed suspects who fought back, including several armed communist New People’s Army insurgents. Among those killed was Edgardo Avelino, 59, a longtime chairman of a local peasant group affiliated with the Peasant Movement of the Philippines. Seven farmers, two village officials, and several others were also killed. We learned from local activists that a dozen residents were arrested and taken into custody.
Since taking office in June 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has instigated a “war on drugs” in which the police have carried out thousands of extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers and users. Research by Human Rights Watch and others has shown that the police without basis claim to be acting in self-defense, often planting guns and drugs on the victims. Expanding these murderous tactics to other realms of abusive “law enforcement” would be unsurprising.
Violence isn’t new to Negros. The island has long suffered turmoil fueled by landlessness. The security forces frequently blur peasant farmers and land reform activists with armed communist rebels to justify attacks on the former. Killings have intensified over the past six months. The so-called “Sagay Massacre” in Negros Occidental in October 2018 left nine dead. In December 2018, the police gunned down six people in Guihulngan in Negros Oriental.
Members of the security forces implicated in unlawful killings in Negros have rarely been brought to justice. By playing the “self-defense” card, the authorities will make getting redress for victims even harder.
A prompt, impartial and independent investigation into the Negros Oriental killings is desperately needed. Concerned governments, particularly European Union countries that have supported criminal justice reform in the Philippines, should be raising their concerns loud and clear over the deteriorating situation. With appropriate assurances, they also might want to offer direct assistance and expertise for an independent investigation. If the Philippine government allowed such an investigation, it would not be the end of the lawlessness engulfing the country, but it might be a first step in keeping the lawlessness from getting worse.