2020 has seen an increase in global backlash against police brutality, with the death of George Floyd in the United States of America sparking protests around the world. No country has the perfect policing system, though some are more problematic than others. In the Philippines, police widely experience impunity, and a recent incident has sparked major criticism of their current position above the law.
On December 21st, a video of a police officer shooting a woman and her son went viral on Filipino social media. The incident included an off-duty police officer arguing with his neighbours over noise levels and ended with him shooting a mother and son in the face, killing them both. However, while this particular video was widely circulated across the internet and prompted the hashtags “Stop the Killing PH” and a Filipino phrase translating to “the police are terrorists,” it is a part of a larger trend of police brutality in the country.
The Philippines National Police are currently facing a potential investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) – a court set up to try individuals who have committed crimes against humanity – which recently came out with evidence of human rights abuses that have been committed since Rodrigo Duterte became the Filipino president in 2016.
President Duterte’s War on Drugs
After winning the 2016 federal election, Duterte started a campaign to crack down on illegal drugs in the country, calling it the “War on Drugs.” However, this so-called war came at a high cost for Filipino civilians: a 2020 United Nations (UN) report estimated that tens of thousands of people may have been killed, many of whom were not associated with drugs at all.
The fight against drugs, an extension of Duterte’s “tough on crime” stance, has had severe consequences on the country’s justice system. The vague language used in the police’s mandate regarding the crackdown, combined with high-level officials urging the use of lethal violence has led the police to interpret their rhetoric as “permission to kill.”
Duterte’s harsh measures have done more harm than good for the country, if they have done any good at all. In 2016, a New York Times photojournalist published a moving, yet disturbing, article on 57 homicides committed in 35 days, bringing to light some of the atrocities happening on Filipino streets. Included in the article was the information that not only were police officers shooting people, but vigilantes were too, killing anyone they thought was associated with drugs, despite a lack of evidence to back up their suspicions. However, this was only the beginning.
While it is suspected that about five thousand drug dealers and users have died in the Philippines since 2016, it is also estimated that more than 27,000 people have been killed by the police, police agents, or unidentified killers, with no proper investigations into the majority of these deaths. The estimations vary from source to source, showing the lack of transparency regarding the crisis. Additionally, the police currently do not need warrants to search houses or conduct raids. There is also evidence of police systematically forcing suspects to make self-incriminating statements by threatening them with lethal force.
The impact of the rampant killings has also had extreme consequences on children. Beyond the immediate violence, many children have lost parents or witnessed the loss of their parents, causing them to experience psychological trauma, leave their homes, or go into hiding in fear of persecution. The loss of a parent in an already poor household can lead to families facing extreme poverty and some being forced into work from an early age. Children unable to go to school and receive an education will have future consequences for the country, with the next generation unable to contribute to the economy as they are forced to deal with the impacts of Duterte’s inhumane war.
A Skewed Justice System
The anti-drug campaign has skewed the Filipino justice system. It has led the police to proceed with almost complete freedom to do as they please and no consequences for their actions. The most recent example of the officer shooting his neighbours is only one of countless examples showing how harmful police immunity can have on civil society.
In 2019, the Philippines also withdrew from the ICC after there were multiple complaints filed against President Duterte himself. Regardless of this act, the ICC released a preliminary report this month stating that there is “a reasonable basis to believe that the crimes against humanity of murder, torture and the infliction of serious physical injury and mental harm” were evident since Duterte initiated the crackdown. These findings have the potential to lead to a full investigation into the ongoing atrocities in the country. However, there is skepticism if an investigation will have an impact on its current state, as the Philippines no longer recognizes the jurisdiction of the court. The final decision on whether to conduct an investigation will be made in 2021.
The war on drugs which Duterte started has wreaked havoc on the Philippines; the toxic environment that allows the Filipino police to act above the law has been facilitated by the president himself. By granting police officers immunity for their unlawful actions, including countless homicides and obvious war crimes, Filipino citizens will quickly lose respect for the country’s law enforcement system and government.
While Duterte has immunity as president under Filipino law, heads of state do not have immunity under the ICC. Although it is unlikely that Duterte will rejoin the court, an international investigation should still be conducted into the policing system’s wrongdoings, including the role that high-level officials played in encouraging the violence. Within the country, there should be an effort at increasing the transparency of investigations into the homicides of the past four years and an implementation of proper trials for suspected drug dealers and users.